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Journal of Modern Literature 26.2 (2003) 66-80

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Between Being and Nothingness:

The "Astonishing Precipice" of Virginia Woolf's Night and Day

Central Queensland University, Australia

There are two worlds in Night and Day: the everyday world of social life and interaction, and a shadowy other realm in which the everyday world simply ceases to exist. For Katharine Hilbery, who straddles these worlds, the first is a place of constraint, the second of liberation. She repeatedly manifests the desire to leave not only society but also identity itself behind—to become nothing. This can be understood not as a desire for death but as an expression of extreme discontent with the models of identity that are open to her within her society. In her trance states, she seeks to throw off all of the trappings of identity and experience herself in an entirely different way. But there is literally no way for her to articulate this desire: it cannot be described, represented in words, without being appropriated by the conventional models of identity which language itself underwrites. So she takes refuge in words that are merely placeholders for something entirely other—words like nothingness and emptiness. Katharine's strange other realm can be seen, then, as an attempt to re-create identity in ways that are not circumscribed by any existing models—particularly those prescribed by patriarchy, whose constructions of femininity she finds so constraining. In this, Night and Day can be seen as a precursor to the experiments with identity Woolf would go on to make in her later novels, particularly Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves.1 In Night and Day, however, Katharine's fantasy of another mode of identity is re-appropriated by patriarchy through the discourse of romantic love—a discourse that seems at first to enable her to create the fluid, unconfined, reciprocal self she longs for but which turns out to be simply an expert means of returning that self to the service of patriarchy. Nevertheless, Night and Day is an important transitional [End Page 66] text in that it depicts in strikingly literal terms the struggle between conventional society (and the conventional narrative tools available to write about that society) and what Woolf would later call, in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," the "vision to which I cling" (p. 82).2 Once Woolf abandoned those conventional narrative tools which were "death" to her (p. 80), she was able to begin to articulate that "vision."

Katharine Hilbery experiences herself as having two separate and distinct modes of being. Without warning, she falls into seeming trances in which she leaves the social world and passes into a kind of dream world, from which she subsequently wakes back into social life. This premise may seem to strain realism, and yet these experiences are presented in an entirely realistic way. Katharine is a more or less ordinary (upper-middle-class) woman, and her trances, though frustrating at times to her friends and lovers, seem to be regarded by them as entirely normal. Indeed, most of the other characters occasionally experience similar states themselves, particularly Katharine's lover, Ralph Denham. When she falls into one of these trances, which she may do alone or in company, even while engaged in conversation, she feels that she has entered another world: she "became another person, and the whole world seemed changed" (p. 116).3 This transformed self and world are more real to her than the so-called reality she leaves behind:

If she had tried to analyse her impressions, she would have said that there dwelt the realities of the appearances which figure in our world; so direct, powerful, and unimpeded were her sensations there, compared with those called forth in actual life. There dwelt the things one might have felt, had there been cause; the perfect happiness of which here we taste the fragment; the beauty seen here in flying glimpses only.
(p. 116)

Reality and illusion have changed places so that what seemed to...