And even if it isn't fine to-mor row," said Mrs

Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2000. 7: 3-19.



Thomas J. Scheff

At present the humanities and the sciences constitute two different worlds, with virtually no intercourse between them. In this essay I suggest a way in which art might be of service to the social sciences, and social science, in turn, to literary criticism in efforts to understand the phenomenon of human consciousness.

The biologist E. O. Wilson (1998) has called for "consilience" (the interlocking of perspectives) between the realms of knowledge. He points out that many of the current advances in the physical and life sciences have been due to the integration of disciplinary frameworks, as in biophysics, biochemistry, and astrophysics. Wilson also point that such integration is notably absent in the social sciences and humanities. Each discipline goes its own way, usually ignoring or denigrating the contributions of the other disciplines. It is particularly relevant to this essay that Wilson strongly urges a meeting between humanities and science.

Such a meeting will be difficult because of entrenched attitudes in both realms. Scientists pride themselves on their logical approach, artists on non-logical intuition. Pascal noted that the first approach is based on what he called system, the second, on what he called finesse, that is, intuition. He also noted that one can be an ordinary scientist using only system, or an ordinary artist using only finesse. But he went on to say that to be a great scientist or artist, one must use both.

Advances in science require not only number crunching, but also intuition. We know from studies of computer simulation and artificial intelligence that there are severe limitations to systematic approaches. Indeed great scientists have often been either artists themselves (Da Vinci), or at least used intuition freely as if they were artists. Von Neumann, the mathematician whose work provided the basis for computers, was completely intuitive in his work. If he didn't see the solution to an equation instantly, he simply went on the next problem.

It appears that the intuitive mind has instant access to solutions of problems too complex for the analytic mind. However, intuitions aren't necessarily correct solutions; they may be profoundly erroneous. What seems to be needed is a marriage of the ingenuity of intuition with the reality checking of system.

Can artists point the way toward solutions of the complex problems of consciousness? And can science provide reality checking and expansion of these solutions? There is a tradition in literature of the study of the stream of consciousness that might provide scientists with hints on the sources and structure/process of consciousness. A crucial problem for social scientists who study consciousness is that most of us, indeed, virtually all of us, are not highly gifted in noticing and remembering the vast array of concrete details of consciousness. In this respect, we are much like the rest of the human race. The novelist Milan Kundera makes the point tellingly:

Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of love. The most precious, the most important situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense remains (I took this point of view, he took that one. I was aggressive, he was defensive), perhaps a detail or two. but the acousticovisual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity is lost.

And not only is it lost but we do not even wonder at this loss. We are resigned to losing the concreteness of the present. We immediately transform the present moment into its abstraction. We need only recount an episode we experienced a few hours ago: the dialogue contracts to a brief summary, the setting to a few general features. This applies to even the strongest memories which affect the mind deeply like a trauma: we are so dazzled by their potency that we don’t realize how schematic and meager their content is...

We can assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading the entries one day we will see that they cannot evoke a single concrete image. And still worse: that the imagination is unable to help our memory along and reconstruct what has been forgotten. The present—the concreteness of the present—as a phenomenon to consider, as a structure, is for us an unknown planet: so we can neither hold on to it in our memory nor reconstruct it through imagination…(Kundera 1995)

Kundera goes on to say that only the greatest of poets and novelists are able to notice, remember, and use concrete representations of human thoughts and acts. (See also his The Art of the Novel 1988 for a somewhat broader treatment of this theme). If social science theory is to be more than a collection of superficial or untestable ideas, it must somehow be grounded in such images. A grounded theory could, in turn, could help literary critics become aware of universal patterns and themes in literature. (For a brilliant application of this idea to Freud's dialogues, see Billig 1999).

To the Lighthouse

Here I suggest that Virginia Woolf was a great artist who has provided descriptions of concrete sequences of events in consciousness and perhaps insights into its nature. Of course, we can never be completely sure of the accuracy of her descriptions. But they at least offer instances with which theories of consciousness can be grounded, and inspiration for models of consciousness.

For this purpose I use an incident that occurs near the beginning of To the Lighthouse (1927), by Woolf, and the commentary on it by Auerbach (1953). Auerbach’s commentary is important in itself, and has also figured in two substantial traditions in the development of literary criticism. Auerbach was the first to analyze the "interior monologue" of Mrs. Ramsay, the protagonist of the novel, and to comment on its significance. The problem that concerns me is identifying and understanding the multipersonal voices that figure in the interior monologue during the incident.

To identify the various voices and points of view, I apply a theory of the social construction of the self, as proposed by G. H. Mead. I first show the actual incident, then the interior monologues that accompanied it, then some of Auerbach’s commentary on them. My findings contradict current postmodern interpretations of multipersonal dialogue in consciousness, but support or at least illustrate a feminist interpretation. I propose that the segment from the novel and Mead’s theory illuminate each other through the relationship of dialogue and social institutions, of smallest parts and largest wholes.

G.H. Mead’s theory of the origins and process of consciousness relates ‘mind, self and society" (Mead 1932). At the center of his theory was the process he called "taking the role of the other" by which humans are able to imaginatively enter the mind of the other. Mead’s theory has developed a substantial following within sociological social psychology, the school of thought known as "symbolic interaction." However, because of the unrelenting abstractness of the theory, it has been difficult for Mead’s followers to develop an explicit theory and method that could be applied to actual episodes. Like most social theories, it has continued to be discussed at such an abstract level that it has never been clear how well it describes human conduct. My purpose in further analyzing the incident in To the Lighthouse is to show how well Mead’s theory fits it, and how the concreteness of the interior monologue can be used to correct for the abstractness of the theory. Dialogue and theory together may prove mutually illuminating.

The Incident

Near the beginning of Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Ramsay is measuring a stocking that she is knitting against her son James’ leg. She speaks to him four times: first telling him that she is going to measure the stocking against his leg, then twice protesting his movement, and finally, when she is finished and begun to knit again. These four utterances make up the entire outer content of the episode.

1. "And now," she said, "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. Smiling, -- she took the heather mixture stocking, with its criss-cross of steel needles at the mouth of it, and measured it against James's leg.

2. -- speaking sharply to James: "My dear, stand still," she said, for in his jealousy, not liking to serve as measuring block for the Lighthouse keeper's little boy, James fidgeted purposely; and if he did that, how could she see, was it too long, was it too short? she asked.

3. "Stand still. Don't be tiresome," so that he knew instantly that her severity was real, and straightened his leg and she measured it. The stocking was too short by half an inch at least, making allowance for the fact that Sorley's little boy would be less well grown than James. It's too short," she said, "ever so much too short."

4. Knitting her reddish-brown hairy stocking -- Mrs. Ramsey smoothed out what had been harsh in her manner a moment before, raised his head, and kissed the little boy on the forehead. "Let’s find another picture to cut out," she said.

For the purpose of this discussion, I have abridged the text to focus attention on Mrs. Ramsay’s actual speech. In doing so, I have left out the bulk of the text, which is several pages of Mrs. Ramsay’s conscious thoughts.

The Interior Monologues

This is the text that goes between her first warning and her second (I have numbered and italicized those segments that I will discuss):

She looked up—what demon possessed him, her youngest, her cherished? —and saw the room, saw the chairs, thought them fearfully shabby. Their entrails, as Andrew said the other day, were all over the floor; but then what was the point, she asked herself, of buying good chairs to let them spoil up here all through the winter when the house, with only one old woman to see to it, positively dripped with wet? Never mind: the rent was precisely twopence halfpenny; the children loved it; it did her husband good to be three thousand, or if she must be accurate, three hundred miles from his library and his lectures and his disciples; and there was room for visitors. Mats, camp beds, crazy ghosts of chairs and tables whose London life of service was done they did well enough here; and a photograph or two, and books. Books, she thought, grew of themselves. She never had time to read them. Alas! even the books that had been given her, and inscribed by the hand of the poet himself: "For her whose wishes must be obeyed . . ." "The happier Helen of our days . . ." disgraceful to say, she had never read them. And Croom on the Mind and Bates on the Savage Customs of Polynesia ("My dear, stand still," she said)—neither of those could one send to the Lighthouse. At a certain moment, she supposed, the house would become so shabby that something must be done. If they could be taught to wipe their feet and not bring the beach in with them—that would be something. Crabs, she had to allow, if Andrew really wished to dissect them, or if Jasper believed that one could make soup from seaweed, one could not prevent it; or Rose's objects—shells, reeds, stones; for they were gifted, her children, but all in quite different ways. And the result of it was, she sighed, taking in the whole room from floor to ceiling, as she held the stocking against James's leg, that things got shabbier and got shabbier summer after summer. The mat was fading; the wallpaper was flapping. You couldn't tell any more that those were roses on it. Still, if every door in a house is left perpetually open, and no lockmaker in the whole of Scotland can mend a bolt, things must spoil. What was the use of flinging a green Cashmere shawl over the edge of a picture frame? In two weeks it would be the colour of pea soup. But it was the doors that annoyed her; every door was left open. She listened. The drawingroom door was open; the hall door was open; it sounded as if the bedroom doors were open; and certainly the window on the landing was open, for that she had opened herself. That windows should be open, and doors shut— simple as it was, could none of them remember it? She would go into the maids' bedrooms at night and find them sealed like ovens, except for Marie's, the Swiss girl, who would rather go without a bath than without fresh air, but then at home, she had said, "the mountains are so beautiful." She had said that last night looking out of the window with tears in her eyes. "The mountains are so beautiful." Her father was dying there, Mrs. Ramsay knew. He was leaving them fatherless. Scolding and demonstrating (how to make a bed, how to open a window, with hands that shut and spread like a Frenchwoman's) all had folded itself quietly about her, when the girl spoke, as, after a flight through the sunshine the wings of a bird fold themselves quietly and the blue of its plumage changes from bright steel to soft purple. She had stood there silent for there was nothing to be said. He had cancer of the throat. 1. At the recollection—how she had stood there, how the girl had said "At home the mountains are so beautiful," and there was no hope, no hope whatever, she had a spasm of irritation, and [at this point, she spoke sharply to James].

The next monologue occurs after Mrs. Ramsay’s second warning to James: In this segment, the number of voices increases, and most of their identities are not clear:

2. Never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, halfway down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad.

3. But was it nothing but looks? people said. What was there behind it—her beauty, her splendour? Had he blown his brains out, they asked, had he died the week before they were married—some other, earlier lover, of whom rumours reached one? Or was there nothing? nothing but an incomparable beauty which she lived behind, and could do nothing to disturb? For easily though she might have said at some moment of intimacy when stories of great passion, of love foiled, of ambition thwarted came her way how she too had known or felt or been through it herself, she never spoke. She was silent always. She knew then—she knew without having learnt. Her simplicity fathomed what clever people falsified. Her singleness of mind made her drop plumb like a stone, alight exact as a bird, gave her, naturally, this swoop and fall of the spirit upon truth which delighted, eased, sustained—falsely perhaps.

4. ("Nature has but little clay," said Mr. Bankes once, hearing her voice on the telephone, and much moved by it though she was only telling him a fact about a train, "like that of which she moulded you." He saw her at the end of the line, Greek, blue-eyed, straight-nosed. How incongruous it seemed to be telephoning to a woman like that. The Graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in meadows of asphodel to compose that face. Yes, he would catch the 10:30 at Euston.

"But she's no more aware of her beauty than a child," said Mr. Bankes, replacing the receiver and crossing the room to see what progress the workmen were making with an hotel which they were building at the back of his house. And he thought of Mrs. Ramsay as he looked at that stir among the unfinished walls. For always, he thought, there was something incongruous to be worked into the harmony of her face. She clapped a deerstalker's hat on her head; she ran across the lawn in goloshes to snatch a child from mischief. So that if it was her beauty merely that one thought of, one must remember the quivering thing, the living thing (they were carrying bricks up a little plank as he watched them), and work it into the picture; of if one thought of her simply as a woman, one must endow her with some freak of idiosyncrasy; or suppose some latent desire to doff her royalty of form as if her beauty bored her and all that men say of beauty, and she wanted only to be like other people, insignificant. He did not know. He did not know. He must go back to work.)

Auerbach’s Commentary

Auerbach’s (1953) famous chapter on this incident, The Brown Stocking, makes the vital point that each of these far ranging monologues takes place within what could only be a few seconds of time. He proposed that Woolf was representing human reality as made up predominately of interior experience. Judging by the substantial content of the monologues, they must be occurring at a very rapid pace, perhaps too fast to notice in awareness. As Auerbach puts it, " a sharp contrast results between the brief span of time occupied by the exterior event and the dreamlike wealth of a process of consciousness which traverses the whole subjective universe." He goes on to say that Woolf’s focus on what might be seen as a few random moments caused something "new and elemental [to appear]: nothing less than the wealth of reality and depth of life in every moment to which we surrender ourselves without prejudice."

Even though Auerbach extols the extraordinary insight and artistry of Woolf’s treatment of the monologues, he is also troubled by it, especially in the second monologue. He notes the presence of many voices, a crowd of them, and is puzzled by who they represent.

Who is speaking in this paragraph? Who is looking at Mrs. Ramsay here, who concludes that never did anybody look so sad? Who is expressing these doubtful, obscure suppositions?—about the tear which—perhaps— forms and falls in the dark, about the water swaying this way and that, receiving it, and then returning to rest? There is no one near the window in the room but Mrs. Ramsay and James. It cannot be either of them, nor the "people" who begin to speak in the next paragraph. Perhaps it is the author. However, if that be so, the author certainly does not speak like the one who has a knowledge of his characters—in this case, of Mrs. Ramsay—and who, out of his knowledge, can describe their personality and momentary state of mind objectively and with certainty. Virginia Woolf wrote this paragraph. She did not identify it through grammatical and typographical devices as the speech or thought of a third person. One is obliged to assume that it contains direct statements of her own. But she does not seem to bear in mind that she is the author and hence ought to know how matters stand with her characters. The person speaking here, whoever it is, acts the part of one who has only an impression of Mrs. Ramsay, who looks at her face and renders the impression received, but is doubtful of its proper interpretation. "Never did anybody look so sad" is not an objective statement. In rendering the shock received by one looking at Mrs. Ramsay's face, it verges upon a realm beyond reality. And in the ensuing passage the speakers no longer seem to be human beings at all but spirits between heaven and earth, nameless spirits capable of penetrating the depths of the human soul, capable too of knowing something about it, but not of attaining clarity as to what is in process there, with the result that what they report has a doubtful ring, comparable in a way to those "certain airs, detached from the body of the wind," which in a later passage move about the house at night "questioning and wondering." However that may be, here we are not dealing with objective utterances on the part of the author in respect to one of the characters. No one is certain of anything here; it is all mere supposition, glances cast by one person upon another whose enigma he cannot solve.

It was Auerbach who first noticed what is now called the "multipersonal representation of consciousness," the portrayal of consciousness as containing many voices. Auerbach was not troubled by the voice that I have numbered as 1. This voice was clearly labeled by Woolf as a Mrs. Ramsay’s recollection of what the maid said: "The mountains are so beautiful, " which Mrs. Ramsay recalls several times.

But in the second monologue, three more voices or points of view appear, all difficult to identify. The voice I have numbered as 3 is identified as belonging only to "people." (But was it nothing but looks? people said.) The point of view from which comment #2 came is not identified at all: Never did anybody look so sad. Finally, the section concerning William Banks, # 4, is the most exasperating of all: "Nature has but little clay like that of which she moulded you." And "But she's no more aware of her beauty than a child." This section, although it begins with a comment Bankes made to Mrs. Ramsay in a telephone conversation, as it expands to his own thoughts and actions, seems to belong in his consciousness rather than in Mrs. Ramsay’s.

Although Auerbach extends his appreciation of the first monologue to the second, the latter appears much more enigmatic to him, to the point that, as Mr. Bankes shook off "the insoluble problem of Mrs. Ramsay," so Auerbach appears to give up on the problem of identifying the voices in the second monologue. But even with these doubts and puzzles, Auerbach’s overall impression of the monologues is highly appreciative. His chapter ends with the suggestion that they may well penetrate to the level of that which is universal in all humanity. I agree with this judgment, but I also will try to explain the occurrence of voices in the second monologue that Auerbach found so puzzling.

The Problem: Identifying the Voices

The classic treatment of the representation of consciousness in fiction is Cohn (1978). However her interest concerns only the artistic problem of representation, not its relation to actual human experience. In this essay, I propose a social psychological solution to the problem of identifying the multipersonal voices. Before doing so, however, I note two other reactions to this and similar problems involving multipersonal representation of consciousness.

One of the surmises that Auerbach makes about the unidentified voices in Mrs. Ramsay’s monologues is that they may reflect the dissolution of the self in the modern world. The unidentifiable voices, he implies, represent the upheaval and irrationality of the modern self, which in turn reflect the increasing disorder of the real world, the world of modern societies.

Since Auerbach’s surmise in 1953, this kind of interpretation of texts has grown into the vast enterprise of postmodernity. This viewpoint proposes that human life is basically and irrevocably irrational, and that the meaning of texts which describe it are undecidable. This point of view affirms, indeed, takes as axiomatic, the impossibility of solving the problem of identifying the voices and points of view in Mrs. Ramsay’s monologues. My proposed solution to this problem will contradict the postmodern viewpoint.

A second development since 1953 in the discussion of the multipersonal representation of consciousness has been the rise of feminist scholarship. One thesis that has been argued by feminist scholars in relation to Mrs. Ramsay’s and other monologues is that multipersonal representation of consciousness is specifically feminine. My solution to the problem of identifying the voices in monologues for the most part supports the feminist position.

G. H. Mead’s Social Psychology of Consciousness

Although Mead (1933) did not use the term multipersonal, his theory of the social construction of the self involves multipersonal and multiperspectival dialogue in consciousness, indeed, as constituting consciousness itself. For Mead, the self is a process that is initially formed by external dialogues, but as a child matures, internal dialogue comes to be the basic content of the self. Mead is only one of a tradition of pragmatist social psychologists which includes William James and Charles Cooley. This group all proposed that inner dialogue makes up the content of consciousness. The Russian philologist Bakhtin (1981; Morris, 1994) also emphasized the dialogic nature of consciousness, but did not develop an actual theory that explains the multiplicity of voices in detail. Like Cohen's study of inner narrative (1978), his interest seems to be primarily classificatory.

For Mead, the basic process which produces the social construction of the self was what he called "taking the role of the other." That is, a competent individual must be able to put herself into the perspective of the other, seeing the world, momentarily, as the other person sees it, or at least as she imagines the other person sees it. This is the fundamental process that allows humans to cooperate with each other, when role taking is sufficiently accurate. It is also the process that allows humans to understand each other, when they do. Finally, he argued, it is role-playing, taking the roles of others, and the ensuing dialogues between self and roles, and between roles and roles, that constitutes both the content and structure of consciousness.

True to his training as a philosopher, Mead never illustrated his theory concretely, using textual data. For this reason, the meaning of the theory has remained somewhat ambiguous, and its application unclear. Mead does offer occasional examples for his ideas, but the examples are quite brief and hypothetical, rather than being based on textual analysis. One instance is his comparison of a dog and a person reacting to pointing with one’s finger. The human, he says, will take the role of the person pointing, imagining self in that person’s position, sighting along the line established by the arm and finger, to locate whatever is being pointed at. But it is difficult to train a dog to take the role of the pointing person; more likely, Mead said, the dog will want to sniff the pointing finger. The extensive portrayal of concrete inner dialogue by novelists like Woolf offers both a corrective to and an elaboration of Mead’s theory.

Stages of Role-taking

Mead proposed that the child goes through three stages in learning role taking. The first stage he called imitation. In this stage, the child does not grasp the situation from the viewpoint of the other, but merely imitates her outer appearance. The child acts out the appearance and behavior of the farmer or ballerina without seeing the world from their point of view. The child playing the role of Mommy or Daddy does not grasp situations in the way that the real Mommy or Daddy would, but merely acts out their behavior and gestures.

In the game stage, the child learns to take the point of view of the other, but only in settings which are rigidly scripted. In a stage play, for example, the competent actor may learn not only her own part, but also at least aspects of the parts of other characters. In order to play baseball competently, for example, the batter must be able to take the roles of the other players, quickly imagining the reactions of the shortstop and pitcher to the groundball she has hit between them, the reaction of baserunner, and so on. By watching players in the other positions, each player learns to imagine their behavior, from their point of view. But the imagined responses are limited to situations that the child has actually observed.

The third and final stage in the learning of role taking is what Mead called the generalized other. Having learned to take the role of the other in scripted situations, the child grasps this process so well that she is able to take the role of imagined others, seeing self from points of view that do not yet exist, or may never exist. In this way, the capacity for cooperative improvisation arises, since each player can imagine the role of the others in situations that have never arisen before. One can imagine responses such as those of posterity, or by all of humanity. According to Mead, it is this stage which gives rise to the distinctive intelligence, creativity, and flexibility that characterizes human beings at their best.

Mead proposed that it is by taking the role of others, real or imagined, that one is able to approach objectivity toward self and to be creative. To the extent that one can accurately imagine other points of view than one’s own, to that extent one can approach objectivity. And to the extent than one can imagine new points of view, once can try out new vantage points in one’s imagination rapidly and efficiently, possibly leading to new approaches to the world.

Since Mead’s primary interest in role taking was in the origins of human flexibility and intelligence, he did not note that role taking of the kind he envisioned can also lead to delusion and irrationality. Paranoia, for example, is constituted by a process of role taking, but one that systematically distorts, rather than reflects the points of view of others. This source of irrationality does not necessarily lie in instinctual impulses, of the kind that Freud called primary process, but in the ability developed in socialization, the ability to take imaginary points of view.

Mead's view of consciousness was behavioral. He believed that consciousness arises only when an instinctive or learned action sequence is first triggered, but not allowed completion. Such blockage occurs accidentally in early childhood. When a baby reaches out to grasp an object, but is unable to reach it, the failure to complete the grasping sequence gives rise to an involuntary conscious image. Later, especially during the early part of the game stage, the child is able to voluntarily elicit conscious images by triggering, then blocking an action sequence. Images in consciousness are blocked actions.

Most reflective thought, according to Mead, occurs in verbal form. One talks to one's self. How is self-talk generated by blocked actions? Mead thought that a word appears in consciousness when one triggers the action of speaking it, but blocks the action pattern, i.e. the activation of the vocal cords.

The most interesting aspect of Mead's behavioral theory of consciousness is its application to the puzzle of emotions. According to Mead, feelings arise in consciousness when an emotional response pattern is activated but blocked before it can be consummated. For example, sexual feelings arise in consciousness during foreplay, because the bodily response sequence which leads to orgasm is elicited, but blocked from completion. The same idea might be extended to the problem of understanding how consciousness of emotions is generated, although Mead himself did not do so.

Suppose that the emotion of grief is an action pattern that is completed by crying or weeping. If one wept completely the instant that one realizes a loss, one would feel little or no grief. But if the bodily response to loss is activated without allowing completion, then one would feel grief. I will apply this idea to a segment of self-talk below.

The Voices in Mrs. Ramsay’s Monologues

The first monologue appears not to be multipersonal. That is, there is only one person represented in it: Mrs. Ramsay, thinking to herself. Although various personages appear in the monologue, such as her son Andrew and the Swiss maid, Mrs. Ramsay doesn’t take their point of view, she only remembers and repeats what they said.

But in the second monologue, two identified and one unidentified points of view appear. The first identified point of view is that of "people." That is, in section # 3, Mrs. Ramsay appears to take the role of "people" in asking the question: But was it nothing but looks? "People" also raise several other questions, some of which not clearly located in time and space. Mrs. Ramsay appears to start answering the questions that she attributed to "people", beginning with the sentence: "For easily though she might have said -- how she too had known or felt or been through it herself, she never spoke." Mrs. Ramsay is imagining questions that "people" might ask about her, first from their point of view, and then responding to the questions, from her own point of view. She is not engaging in an inner dialogue, however. She allows the voice of "people" to raise several questions about her, but her response is not part of a dialogue with the people who raise the questions. She simply thinks to herself how she has never responded to such questions.

Similarly with the unidentified voice I have numbered as 2. ". Never did anybody look so sad." Who is speaking? It appears that Mrs. Ramsay is visualizing herself as she might be seen by another person or persons, perhaps by "people" as she labels this viewpoint in the paragraph immediately following. But in the case of the assertion #2, Mrs. Ramsay doesn’t label the speaker or viewpoint. Why not? We need to remember that these thoughts are occurring with great rapidity, since she has many, many thoughts within a space of time that could be only a few seconds. In this hasty process, there may be no need or time to actually label every voice or viewpoint, since she is only talking to herself. The process of inner thought is associational, each thought or feeling giving rise to one associated with it, but the associations are not necessarily logical or conventional. (For a detailed description of associational processes in the consciousness of characters in fiction, see Humphrey 1958).

Note that many of the associations within this segment go unlabelled. Who is the person, real or imagined, who might have died the week before they were married? could it be an earlier suitor of Mrs. Ramsay's? Woolf ‘s treatment suggests that inner speech is different than outer speech in many ways. Since it occurs so rapidly, many of the associations would be difficult for anyone other than Mrs. Ramsay to follow, because they depend on non-logical associations, and/or unlabeled references. Again, as in section 3, Mrs. Ramsay doesn’t talk back to the point of view that is observing her sadness; there is no dialogue.

The cadenza that is Section 4 is a dialogue, or at least it begins with what seems to be an actual dialogue, a phone conversation between herself and William Bankes. But the phone conversation seems to be taking place not from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, but from Bankes’s. This difference of point of view may be heralded by the fact that Woolf has enclosed the whole section within parentheses.

The section starts with a compliment that Banks pays to Mrs. Ramsay, that "Nature has but little clay like that of which she moulded you." But within this quotation a feeling of Bankes’s is noted, that he his moved by her voice. The section goes to comment on how he sees her as Greek, and so on, and his feeling that it was incongruous to be phoning her, that her face had been assembled by the Graces. Then, following the series of compliments, both external and internal, Bankes states, either to Mrs. Ramsay or to himself, that yes, he would catch the 10:30 train, which is what the phone call is ostensibly about.

The point of view is obviously not Mrs. Ramsay’s, but Bankes’s. How could this be? What Woolf seems to be doing is showing that Mrs. Ramsay imagined a sequence of events beginning with an actual compliment to herself, but then going on to carry through the compliment to a sequence of thoughts and activities as they might have occurred to Bankes.

Mrs. Ramsay knew that Bankes was an admirer of hers, and she also knew his habits quite well. Into the cadenza she has put her knowledge of him (for example, his habit of watching workingmen at a construction cite when gathering his thoughts). She is thinking of the problem of Mrs. Ramsay and her beauty from the point of view of an admirer of hers.

She is imagining herself from Mr. Bankes’ point of view, just as Woolf, in the two monologues, is imagining the world from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, a world within a world. Just as Mrs. Ramsay was able to plausibly construct the world from Mr. Bankes’s point of view, because she knew him well, so Virginia Woolf was able to plausibly construct the world from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, since she knew so well the model (her own mother, Julia Stephen) on whom Mrs. Ramsay was based. When Woolf’s sister Vanessa read To the Lighthouse, she wrote to Virginia " have given a portrait of mother which more like her than anything I could ever have conceived possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. far as portrait painting goes you seem to me to be a supreme artist..." (Lee 1997, pp. 473-474).

Note that Mrs. Ramsay’s interior monologues do not approach objectivity toward herself, since the contents are virtually all either complimentary or neutral. Mead’s theory should be understood to explain how objectivity toward self might be possible; but it shouldn’t be taken to mean that people are usually objective toward self.

However, it should be noted that there is one negative element in the monologue. It comes at the end of the segment that I have designated as .3, when Mrs. Ramsay is considering how "people" might see her. This segment, until the last word, is in the interrogative mode, but is also uniformly positive, to the point of being worshipful. "People" seem to be puzzling over Mrs. Ramsay, who she really is, what she is like inside, but in doing so, comment on "her beauty, her splendor" and many other of her wonders. The commentary goes on in this adoring vein until the end of the last sentence: "Her singleness of mind made her drop plumb like a stone, alight exact as a bird, gave her, naturally, this swoop and fall of the spirit upon truth which delighted, eased, sustained—falsely perhaps." I have italicized the last two words because of the sudden reversal to a negative note. After perhaps twenty or thirty highly complementary comments on herself, "people" insert a negative one, that Mrs. Ramsay’s ability to delight, ease and sustain might be false. If objectivity can be measured by the degree it contains both negative and positive views of the self, the one negative element suggests that Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts about herself are not completely subjective.

Multipersonal Voices

Why is the second monologue much more multipersonal than the first, more self-referential, and the associations looser and the points of view undefined? One possibility is that two emotional events occurred at the end of the first monologue: Mrs. Ramsay repeated what the Swiss maid said, which was associated with her father dying of cancer, and Mrs. Ramsay spoke sharply to her son James.

The content of the first paragraph (2.) in the second monologue suggests grief (sadness, tears), the emotion that accompanies loss. Perhaps the Swiss maid’s coming loss of her father had an emotional impact on Mrs. Ramsay, arousing her grief. Her speaking sharply to her son may have also affected her emotionally, giving rise to shame or guilt. In any case, the difference between the two monologues would follow if strong emotion, especially strong emotion that is not expressed directly, might causes changes in the self process in the direction of looser associations, less clear references, and more self-reference.

Mead's behavioral theory of consciousness, in this case of feeling, suggests a way of exploring this particular issue. If the bodily response of grief is aroused but not completed in consciousness, then the emotion will show up in consciousness as a feeling of sadness. In this case, the excerpts above suggest elements of sadness expressed only indirectly. Perhaps the loosening of the narrative and its increasing complexity and opacity suggest that the less direct the expression of emotion, the more fluster is created. In this way, Mead's theory might lead toward psychoanalytic ideas about damage caused by failing to express emotions.

At first glance, it would appear that in these monologues, Woolf might be slyly making fun of Mrs. Ramsay, that is, her own mother. The headlong torrent of thoughts and associations, the carelessness about identification, the ambiguity of reference, and above all, the self-referential content would seem to portray Mrs. Ramsay as both slipshod in her thinking, and egotistical or even narcissistic. The Bankes cadenza particularly might be cited as evidence in regard to this latter judgment, since Woolf has imagined her mother imagining, in a lengthy excursion, an admirer’s wholehearted, if puzzled adoration of herself.

On the other hand, it seems more likely that no such judgement of the mother was intended by Woolf. Rather, as implied at the end of Auerbach’s chapter, perhaps what Woolf was seeking was to portray the quality of consciousness that is universal among all people. This quality, Woolf’s treatment of Mrs. Ramsay’s monologues seems to imply, is that our rapid and private inner dialogues are rife with ambiguity and self-reference.

In her diary, Woolf seemed to imply that she was consciously attempting to describe inner reality, as much as a scientist as an artist. Here is a note she wrote when working on her first novel, 19 years before writing To the LightHouse. This note refers not only to the objective description of consciousness, but also to the kind of part/whole reasoning I will mention at the end of this article:

I ... achieve symmetry by means of infinite discords, showing all the traces of the mind’s passage through the world; achieve at the end, some kind of whole made of shivering fragments; to me this seems a natural process; the flight of the mind (Sept., 1908, in Bell 1972).

How might Woolf have discovered the kind of inner dialogue that she portrayed in To the Lighthouse? Although I don’t know that this point is ever made is her extensive writings about her work, it is likely that Woolf made her discovery of inner worlds by examining her own trains of thought. All of us sometime realize that we have jumped from one topic to another without any obvious connection between them. Or our partner in conversation may point out such a jump to us.

What Woolf might have done is to patiently investigate the route by which she got from topic A to topic B, perhaps in many different instances. Although Woolf never was psychoanalyzed, this is also one of the methods of psychoanalysis. With enough time, skill, patience and persistence, it might be possible to trace at least some components one’s own interior monologues in this manner.

In a way, the writing of To the Lighthouse seems to have served as a self-analysis for Woolf. Many years after writing the book, in her "Sketch of the Past", she noted:

It is perfectly true that she [her mother] obsessed me, in spite of the fact that she died when I was thirteen, until I was forty-four [i.e. the year that she wrote To the Lighthouse]. ... I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I no longer see her (Lee 1997, pp. 475-476).

Following Auerbach’s hint about the universality of the lightening fast inner monologue, perhaps Woolf was not ridiculing her mother, but only portraying herself, her mother, and all other humans, in their inner life. As Cooley (1922, 208) put it, we live in the minds of others without knowing it:

Many people of balanced mind and congenial activity scarcely know that they care what others think of them, and will deny, perhaps with indignation, that such care is an important factor in what they are and do. But this is illusion. If failure or disgrace arrives, if one suddenly finds that the faces of men show coldness or contempt instead of the kindliness and deference that he is used to, he will perceive from the shock, the fear, the sense of being outcast and helpless, that he was living in the minds of others without knowing it, just as we daily walk the solid ground without thinking how it bears us up.

But neither Cooley, Mead, nor James ever gave concrete examples of what it is like to live in the minds of others. Woolf’s treatment of inner monologue, since it is so concrete and elaborate, supplies an image of role-taking that is absent in the theoretical work of Mead and other theorists of self-talk. By illustrating their ideas concretely with dialogue, as I have done here, it might be possible to better understand the relationship between the smallest parts of human experience, the words and gestures in dialogue, and the greatest wholes, in this case, general theories of human behavior, such as the one by Mead.

The philosopher Spinoza long ago proposed that human thought and conduct is so complex that it can be understood only by relating the "least parts to the greatest wholes." I call this method part/whole analysis (Scheff 1997). In current research on human conduct, there is usually a great gulf between those who study the least parts, words and gestures in discourse, as in linguistics, from those who study or theorize about the greatest wholes, social institutions like languages, economies or nations. It is likely that the most important aspects of human beings occur in the interfaces between small and large, between micro and macro. Here I have related the small parts of inner dialogue to a large whole, Mead’s imaginative but quite abstract theory of the social nature of the self.

Biographical material suggests that Woolf as a child was aware of the small details that constitute the image of a living person, especially both her parents, and as an adult, writing her book, she remembered them. Surely a social science that is bereft of such details will be inadequate in its portrayal of human conduct.

Feminist Interpretations

A recent analysis (Sprague 1994) of interior monologues in Woolf’s work proposes that they are particularly feminine, especially the multipersonal aspects. Sprague shows that both Woolf and Doris Lessing portray extensive interior monologues of their women characters, and that these monologues are dialogic and multipersonal. Sprague also agrees with that aspect of Auerbach’s comment suggesting that such monologues are evidence of the dissolution of the self.

I have already proposed that Mead’s theory contradicts the idea that multipersonal interior monologues are suggestive of the dissolution of the self. His theory suggests the opposite, that these interior monologues constitute the self, and are necessary for its formation and maintenance. But what about Sprague’s idea about the gendered nature of this type of interior dialogue?

Mead’s statement of his theory ignores the possibility that multipersonal interior dialogue is particularly feminine. It suggests, on the contrary, that this type of dialogue is characteristic of all mature human adults, male or female. But Mead’s theory is so abstract and general that it ignores social institutions such as gender, race, ethnicity, or social class. Mead sought the universals in human development. But the abstractness of Mead’s theory seems to me a flaw, in that he built his theory without benefit of corrective data, which might show variation under different cultural and social conditions. Mead also ignored many other issues, such as the accuracy or distortion of role-taking.

It seems probable that the structure and process of consciousness varies among different groups. Even a glance at male and female authors suggests that women would be more inclined to notice the details of inner dialogue, or at least write about them. There is a considerable amount of interior dialogue in Proust and Joyce, but it seems not to be multipersonal. Rather it is in the mode of Mrs. Ramsay’s first monologue, reflecting only the individual’s thoughts, feelings and memories.

On the other hand, in the work of George Eliot, even though written in the 19th century, there are already suggestions of extensive interior monologue, some of it multipersonal, in one of the women characters, Gwendolyn Harleth, in Daniel Deronda. Although not as elaborated and concrete as Woolf’s treatment, these monologues suggest the same type of inner process as Woolf. Here are some examples from Gwendolyn’s first conversation with Grandcourt, who she ultimately marries:

After Gwendolyn and Grandcourt’s first exchange, in their first conversation, "she imagined various degrees and modes of opinion of herself that might be entertained by Grandcourt." After the second exchange, Gwendolyn, in her imagination, "made a brief graphic description of him [Grandcourt] to an indefinite hearer." These two excerpts suggest internal multipersonal dialogue: the first excerpt implies that Gwendolyn took the role of Grandcourt in order to try out various versions of what he might think of her. The second excerpt implies that Gwendolyn took the role of some other person, an "indefinite hearer," in order to describe to that other person how she (Gwendolyn) saw Grandcourt (presumably his good looks and stately bearing). This latter excerpt is particularly reminiscent of the unidentified points of view in Mrs. Ramsay’s second monologue.

A third and final example from the same dialogue suggests the extensiveness of Gwendolyn’s interior monologue. To put this example in context, it is necessary to understand that Gwendolyn, who is poor, loves riding horses, and that by this phase of her first conversation with Grandcourt, she is already toying with the idea that she might marry him, if only for his wealth and social position. When they are talking about Gwendolyn’s love of riding horses, during a pause when waiting for Grandcourt to reply, she "had run through a whole hunting season with two chosen hunters to ride at will." If this moment had been treated by Woolf, the reader may have been given all of the images that played through Gwendolyn’s consciousness, for two or three pages. But the idea is the same.

Given the presence of extensive multipersonal interior monologue in three women writers (Eliot, Woolf, and Lessing), there does seem to be a connection between this type of writing and gender. Perhaps because of the way that the social position of women is subordinate to that of men in most societies, women would be more conscious of the need to take the role of others than men would. To the extent that women are assigned the role to taking care of others (husbands and children) more than men, to that extent they might develop facility in, and awareness of, the process of role taking.

Proust’s treatment of role taking in his male characters further supports the hypothesis that women are often better at role taking then men. None of the male characters in his great novel seem to be able to manage the kind of plausible role-taking with the women or men they desire in the way that Mrs. Ramsay constructed a plausible picture of an interior monologue of her admirer, Mr. Bankes. Indeed, the loved ones of Proust’s male characters are essentially mysteries to them.

Swann’s "love" for Odette, St. Loup’s for Rachel, Charlus for Morel, and the narrator’s own "loves" for Gilbert, Oriane (the Duchesse de Guermantes), and Albertine are all infatuations based upon the inaccessibility of the loved one’s consciousness. Indeed, after Swann’s marriage to Odette, when he learns a little about her, he looses interest. Unable to connect mentally and emotionally, these men suffer agonies of jealousy, at least some of which is unwarranted. Proust’s depictions of male romantic yearning are all failures in imaginative role taking.

Proust’s own life suggests that he himself often failed in plausibly entering the consciousness of his friend and lovers, and in allowing them access to his own. His approach to friendship, at least, seems to have been based on extravagant gifts, flattery, and careful hiding of his own thoughts and feelings. He lavished praise on his friends’ writings, even when he thought them beneath contempt. He feigned interest in the interests of his friends to the point that they thought him as zealous as they. One of his male friends, in his memoir of their friendship, stated that Proust was a lover of sports, like himself. He mistook Proust’s avowal of interest in his own interest in sports as the real thing. His friends were aghast as the portraits in his novel that resembled them. (this paragraph is based on de Botton 1997, pp 116-144). It appears that in real life Proust was just at sea in understanding his intimates as his male characters were in his novel.

There are indications that in real life, males, more often than women, are in situations in which their role taking is instrumental rather than spontaneous and/or playful. Here is an example from a memoir of an experience in training to be a psychoanalyst (Masson 1990)

In his first session to determine Masson’s suitability for training, the interviewer asks him: "Are you faithful to your wife?" Although Masson doesn’t explicitly state that the following is an interior monologue, it is implied.

I was taken aback. --- How frank was it possible to be? And what were the consequences of being frank? --- did I dare say everything that was on my mind? --- I knew that my answers were to be conveyed to others, who would then go on to make a judgment about my suitability for analytic training.

--- if my answer were an unqualified "Yes, I am faithful to my wife," perhaps I would be seen as a liar, i.e., unfit to be trained as an analyst. "No" meant that you were an admitted cheat and hence not certainly not suitable for the highly "ethical" profession of psychoanalysis. [Since I was] struggling with the issue of monogamy, this seemed the more honest answer. I gave it.

This is not verbatim interior monologue as in Woolf. But it does imply at least two voices besides Masson’s own; the interviewer and the "others", to whom he will report his impressions. Masson attempts to take their role, to try out his responses on them in his interior theatre before answering the question. As a result, his actual response is not deceitful, but brief and therefore guarded. He is trying to please others as well as to tell the truth.

If women are usually better than men at spontaneous, non-instrumental, rapid role-taking, with looseness of association, this difference might explain women’s greater intuition then men. In another place (Scheff 1993), I have suggested that rapid, loose and/or non-conventional associations are a feature of parallel, rather than serial processing in mental activity. Parallel mental processing means that one is thinking in several different trains of thought at once. These parallel trains of thought are all, or all but one, going on outside awareness. When these several trains are all attempts to solve the same problem, they can give rise to extremely rapid and imaginative solutions to difficult problems (This explanation is implied, I believe, in Minsky 1985) This idea is a way of explaining intuition as being generated by parallel trains of thought so rapid as to be outside of awareness (Scheff 1990). Perhaps someday a novelist will go further than Woolf by depicting simultaneous interior trains of thought.


In this essay I have identified the voices in Mrs. Ramsay’s interior dialogue, proposing that they represent her ability to rapidly and effortlessly take the role of the other. This ability, G. H. Mead suggested, involved not the dissolution of the self, but its construction and maintenance. By relating the tiny parts of interior monologue, the words and manner, to the large whole of abstract theory, it may be possible to uncover universal patterns in complex human conduct. The instances I review suggest different tendencies in male and female thought processes. The extraordinary perceptiveness and evocativeness of Woolf’s treatment of Mrs. Ramsay’s interior monologues suggests that Woolf’s work is a contribution not only to art, but also to social science.


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