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The Tower and the Telescope: The Gaze and Colonial Elsewheres in Virginia Woolf’s Fictions

Abstract

Many scholars choose to celebrate Virginia Woolf as a preeminent English modernist who writes from and writes about the hub of empire, while focusing on her major novels and neglecting her short fiction. This thesis takes two of Virginia Woolf’s novels, The Voyage Out and Mrs. Dalloway, and brings them into conversation with the unpublished draft material of Woolf’s little-known, but heavily revised short story “The Searchlight.” Rather than assuming that Woolf is an author who primarily engages with life within England at the turn of the century, it interrogates the colonial elsewheres (or the places of colony that Woolf writes about but never visited herself) that feature in various scenes of looking in her writing. What do Woolf’s characters see when they gaze over people and places that are both known and unknown? And, perhaps even more importantly, what do they imagine? This thesis claims that the act of looking in Woolf’s fictions constitutes a fundamental ambivalence in the ideology of empire – Woolf’s characters gaze at colonial elsewheres in ways that both sustain and dislodge the underlying logic of conquest. Ultimately, the gaze as it operates in Woolf’s fictions is less about accessing a single subjectivity and more about how the gaze is constantly brought into relation with other gazes in the outer world. Any attempt by her characters to achieve a monolithic gaze that aligns with the nationalistic and patriarchal agenda of empire is always disrupted by other objects, people, or places.

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