The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Beyond Solipsism: Narrative and Consciousness in Dorothy Richardson’s Deadlock

Rebecca Nicholson-Weir
East Central University

This essay explores the problem of other minds in Dorothy Richardson’s Deadlock alongside Levinas’ and Merleau-Ponty’s critiques of self-consciousness, arguing that Richardson’s lifelong autobiographical project enacts solipsism in order to encourage readers to engage more fully with the space between the narrator and protagonist. Richardson’s awareness of the ethical pitfalls and possibilities in her method manifest most clearly through Miriam, a character whose own advance through life continually runs up against the problems of self-interestedness, but through whom Richardson is able to explore the mechanics and limits of fiction. Deadlock demonstrates how Richardson acutely understands the difficulties of intersubjectivity and the high ethical stakes its articulation presents for modernist fiction and life writing. 

Keywords:  Intersubjectivity, Dorothy Richardson, phenomenology, Deadlock, life writing

In 1923 D.H. Lawrence imagined himself a doctor called to the “the dismal, long drawn out comedy of the death bed of the serious novel.” His manifesto “Surgery for the Novel—or a Bomb” diagnoses the “pale faced, high browed, earnest novel” as “dying in a very long-drawn out fourteen volume death-agony, and absorbedly, childishly interested in the phenomenon. ‘Did I feel a twinge in my little toe, or didn't I?’ asks every character of Mr Joyce or of Miss Richardson or M. Proust. ‘Is the odour of my perspiration a blend of frankincense and orange pekoe and boot-blacking, or is it myrrh and bacon-fat and Shetland tweed?’” (142). The “fourteen volume death-agony” Lawrence refers to is the autobiographical novel Pilgrimage, and its author, Dorothy Richardson, draws the bulk of Lawrence’s ire.  Despite Lawrence’s dire prognosis, the health and popularity of the “serious novel” rallied, yet compared to the other modernist works Lawrence critiques, Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage fails to draw the same amount of critical or popular attention.1 While the last decade has seen a small renaissance of critical interest in her work and life, this discrepancy raises the question: is Richardson’s autobiographical novel any more insular and “childishly” self-absorbed? How does stream of consciousness modernist experimentation address the idea of excessive self-involvement and solipsism? The critique of literary solipsism Lawrence levels could well be considered the foundation for one of the central ethical questions within early twentieth-century literature and modernist studies today. After all, if one of the defining characteristics of modernism as an artistic movement is an ongoing concern with finding new ways to represent the interior life of individuals or the complexities of individual perception, then how do authors avoid the ethical hazards (and the off-putting dismal “death-agonies”) Lawrence outlines? As interest in the study of ethical intersubjectivity grows in both contemporary continental philosophy and modernist studies, the value of outlining the ways early twentieth-century phenomenology and modernist literature articulate the unique complexities of intersubjective ethical relationships also grows in critical importance. The relentless and single-minded focus on the protagonist Miriam’s perspective that drives Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage makes it an ideal site for such an investigation.

By moving beyond Lawrence’s blithe dismissal to examine Richardson’s Pilgrimage closely, we can see that it serves as a revealing test case for exploring how modernist experimental literature approaches the problem of other minds. While philosophers since Descartes have wondered how it is possible for anyone to know the inner life of another person, or even to know whether another person has an inner life, Richardson’s literary experimentation in Pilgrimage stands out for staging this question in the ethical spaces between the author, reader, and protagonist. Pilgrimage’s focus is the fictional life journey of Miriam Henderson, and because the plot so closely follows Richardson’s own biography, from the very beginning Richardson had to carefully consider not only these similarities, but also the spaces between herself and the character Miriam. These spaces between Richardson the writer and Miriam the creation are not always easy for readers to perceive or define. Kristen Bluemel contends this occurs partly because Pilgrimage, “rather than announcing the author, tries to make us forget the author at every moment. This is possible because the novel’s use of narrated and quoted interior monologue cleverly hides both the author and the authorial narrator within the idiom of the protagonist’s speech” (37). As Stephen Heath writes, “Miriam and Dorothy run into one another” (133). Miriam’s family size and story, travels, and employment history all mirror Richardson’s own closely, but while there are distinct similarities, Richardson is doing much more narratologically than creating a veiled autobiography.2  While autobiographical novels are relatively common, Richardson uses the autobiographical aspect of this narrative in a unique way, harnessing these tensions within her method. 

While other modernists associated with stream of consciousness, such as Woolf and Joyce, craft their novels as a movement among multiple minds, Richardson continued throughout Pilgrimage to focus on Miriam’s mind alone. Richardson herself disagreed with the term “stream of consciousness” for her writing. In “Novels” (published in 1948, thirty years after May Sinclair borrowed the term from Henry James to describe Richardson’s work) Richardson calls stream of consciousness a “lamentably ill-chosen metaphor, long since discarded [by philosophy]…but still, in literary criticism, pursuing its foolish way” (433). In a 1959 interview with Vincent Brome, Richardson told him “stream of consciousness is a muddle headed phrase. It’s not a stream, it’s a pool, a sea, an ocean” (Brome 29). This desire to represent an individual mind occurs throughout the thirteen-volume, multi-decade project. Beginning when the protagonist is seventeen and continuing until she is forty, Richardson restricts the third-person narrative to Miriam’s individual consciousness.3 Pilgrimage focuses only on events in the protagonist's life that Miriam directly experiences and her conscious thoughts about those events. This single-minded focus asks a great deal of readers, and creates a dynamic tension between text and protagonist that is compounded by the fact that readers never have access to the inner lives of any other characters. Richardson’s Pilgrimage is an unusually demanding text, even when examined alongside other experimental high modernist works. Kristin Bluemel notes that 

The most common phrases we use to describe our experience of reading demonstrate the importance of closure and structural coherence, imposed as that structure may be by the demands of commerce and comforts of custom. Experimental texts like Pilgrimage teach us to enjoy new ways of reading as they resist the dictates of conventional forms, but we still tend to desire a completed, unconventional text…In the first place, Pilgrimage is not really a book. Rather, it is thirteen books or four volumes: one mammoth, unfinished text. (16) 

This singular concentration partially accounts for Lawrence and other reviewers feeling unusually “trapped” while reading Miriam’s thoughts. 

The accusations of insularity and egocentricity are partially justified when one considers that throughout the series, Miriam believes she knows what others are thinking, sometimes even better than the thinkers themselves. For Miriam to think this way is not a unique narratological choice, but in Pilgrimage Richardson foregrounds the ethically problematic nature of these beliefs. In this way Miriam's epic tale relies on an older narrative model that charts the development of a narrator who learns and knows, while also creating a new narrative form, one that, by relying heavily on the reader’s identification with the narrator (sometimes at the expense of readerly identification with the protagonist Miriam) as well as the bracketing of the narrative around Miriam's consciousness alone, shows the holes and gaps in this worldview. 

In this essay I read Richardson’s 1921 Deadlock, the sixth novel in Pilgrimage and the final “novel-chapter” published before Lawrence’s essay, with his accusation of solipsism in mind. In the strict sense, solipsism is the view that the self is the only object of real knowledge, and the only thing one can know to exist. Parallel to this philosophical definition and from the beginning of its use in English, solipsism has also been used colloquially to mean excessive egoism. It is with both these definitions in mind that this essay considers the question of solipsism and Richardson’s Deadlock. While the entire sequence engages the question of subjectivity, Deadlock is the ideal site for a study of solipsism because this novel-chapter is the first point at which Miriam herself begins to consider the question of other minds and to articulate her ideas regarding intersubjectivity. This essay works at the intersection of literary criticism and philosophy because Richardson’s project is an important moment for understanding the philosophical and ethical complexity of stream of consciousness literature, and this importance is more visible when considered in light of the debate about art and intersubjectivity between Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Like Richardson, both Levinas and Merleau-Ponty were interested in the idea that art, and the activity of artistic production, could yield ethical results. 

Reading Deadlock alongside these philosophers’ critiques of self-consciousness, I argue that Richardson’s lifelong autobiographical project enacts solipsism in order to encourage readers to engage more fully with the space between the narrator and protagonist, allowing Richardson to posit the narrative possibilities beyond solipsism. Richardson’s awareness of the ethical pitfalls and possibilities in her method manifest most clearly through Miriam, a character whose own advance through life continually runs up against the problems of self-interestedness, but through whom Richardson is able to explore the mechanics and limits of fiction. Rather than ignoring the problem of other minds, Deadlock demonstrates how Richardson acutely understands the difficulties of intersubjectivity and the high ethical stakes its articulation presents for fiction and life writing. By drawing on Richardson’s 1938 “Introduction to Pilgrimage,” as well as interviews and essays, I demonstrate her interests in the ethics of subjectivity and the debates within modernism regarding the limitations of stream of consciousness. I then closely read those moments in Deadlock that explicitly address the knowability of other minds. Deadlock demonstrates how Richardson articulates the failure of a consciousness that is wholly self-reflexive. As Gloria Fromm puts it, “If the books were the expression of a growing, changing consciousness, they could only be what Miriam herself was, stumbling and confused one moment, penetratingly intelligent the next, vague and lucid by turns, with the art of the best volumes lying in the tensions of the consciousness itself” (139). Richardson shows not only a keen narratological awareness of the ethical stakes of her project by enacting the problem of solipsism, but also her deep investment in the larger project of representing consciousness in modernist writing. 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, at the same moment that Richardson was experimenting in representing consciousness through writing, Edmund Husserl was raising questions within the field of philosophy about the role and limits of consciousness. He developed phenomenology, a method for describing phenomena as they appear to the person who perceives the phenomena, as an attempt to revolutionize all modes of human inquiry. Husserl writes that experience

is not an opening through which a world, existing prior to all experience, shines into a room of consciousness; it is not a mere taking of something alien to consciousness into consciousness…Experience is the performance in which for me, the experiencer experiencing being “is there,” and is there as what it is, with the whole content and the mode of being that experience itself, by the performance going on in its intentionality, attributes to it. (233–34)

Here Husserl makes a strong break from prior understandings of how consciousness functions. Rather than viewing consciousness as something separate from experience, phenomenology’s method of transcendental reduction and intentionality reveals consciousness as experience and provides a way to describe what we consciously perceive. Husserl contrasts his method to one that would separate experience and consciousness (the opening into a room), asserting a more immediate connection between the experiencer and that which she experiences. By rejecting Cartesian mind/body dualism, Husserl asserts that immediate, subjective experience is the foundation of consciousness.

After World War II both Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty extended Husserl’s project in different ways.4 Merleau-Ponty argues in Phenomenology of Perception that “to be a consciousness or rather to be an experience is to hold inner communion with the world, the body and other people, to be with them instead of being beside them” (111). For Merleau-Ponty, the potential for “inner communion with the world” exists, but it is not the only possible orientation to the world or others. The intersubjectivity of being-with stands in contrast to the self-absorbedness of being beside other people. To be with others acknowledges these other people as other subjects equal to myself, not objects merely existing to be brought into my consciousness and understood. Levinas continues Husserl’s critique of the idea that knowledge is somehow separate from experience by pointing out in Difficult Freedom that “[k]nowledge seizes hold of its object. Possession denies the independence of being, without destroying that being—it denies and maintains” (8). In this passage, Levinas uses the harsh language of seizure, denial, and destruction to point out the violence that exists in considering another person as an object to be understood by one’s consciousness and possessed by that one as knowledge. The interpersonal relationship founded on “knowing” another person is unethical because it prevents intersubjectivity—which can only exist between two subjects. For Levinas, consciousness can be something else. In “The Temptation of Temptation” he writes, “Consciousness is the urgency of a destination leading to the other person and not an eternal return to self” (48). Consciousness defined as other than self-consciousness is an openness to the other person. This openness is key to ethical intersubjectivity, and by redefining consciousness as other than self-consciousness, he, like Merleau-Ponty, locates the destination of consciousness not in an engagement with the self but with others.

In their dialogue with one another, the two philosophers help us understand Richardson’s representation of the problem of other minds in Pilgrimage. Merleau-Ponty views intersubjectivity more optimistically than Levinas, writing, “I borrow myself from others; I create others from my own thoughts. This is no failure to perceive others, it is the perception of others” (Signs 159). This formula inverts many empiricist responses to solipsism grounded in the idea that “if I exist, so must others.” Merleau-Ponty sees this relationship as continually working both ways: I get an idea of self from others, and then I am able to perceive others based on these ideas. A person cannot proceed from the self and perceive others but must instead begin by borrowing an idea of self from others. This external origin of consciousness runs counter to earlier ideas that privilege the individual mind such as that seen in Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am.” 
Throughout Pilgrimage, Richardson’s protagonist Miriam Henderson struggles to accept other people as thinking subjects equal to herself. Miriam is forced by financial circumstances to work in intellectually unsatisfying and alienating jobs. She teaches first in Germany (Pointed Roofs, 1913), next in a small school in North London (Backwater, 1916), and then works as a governess for a wealthy family (Honeycomb, 1917). In each of these positions Miriam feels constrained by both the stultifying job responsibilities and the forced familiarity these occupations demand. Miriam’s young life changes dramatically when, at the end of Honeycomb, her chronically depressed mother (to whom Miriam is very attached) kills herself while on a brief seaside holiday with Miriam. Rather than returning to teaching, in The Tunnel (1919), Miriam moves to London and finds a job as a dental secretary and a room in a boardinghouse at the edge of Bloomsbury. London stimulates Miriam, and she cultivates her intellectual interests by attending academic lectures in the evenings and becoming acquainted with London’s intellectual bohemian scene, yet she also feels a growing sense of indeterminacy and sadness (Interim, 1919). 

Physical intimacy is also a struggle for Miriam, whose three main romantic relationships end in disappointment. In Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers, Rachel Blau DuPlessis elaborates on the ways that "romance, representing an ideology about women, is a cultural phenomenon that Richardson writes to resist," noting that "all characters and relationships are hedges against suitable male partners who want to pursue flirtations or marriage" (145, 144). Each of these three romances—with Michael Shatov, the Russian Jewish student she considers marrying; Hypo Wilson, the famous novelist and husband of her childhood friend with whom she has an affair; and Amabel, the beautiful and free-spirited suffragist art student in love with Miriam—fail, in large part because of Miriam’s determination to remain free of attachments that would deprive her of an intellectual life.
Given this brief synopsis, one sees how readers can easily become frustrated with Miriam, whose continual wish for time and solitude to think sets her apart from the world and everyone in it. Miriam has moments of illumination that seem to bring her toward realizing the importance of communion with other minds, only to repeatedly fail at effecting any lasting change in her orientation to the world. One such moment occurs in the opening scene of Deadlock. Miriam wants to spend the evening with her landlady Mrs. Bailey and Mrs. Bailey’s beau Mr. Gunner. As she settles into the communal sitting room, Miriam remembers all the people who have lived in the boarding house with her and wonders what has become of them:

All the people…were away somewhere, living their lives…She had felt that they were nothing but a part of the suspension, that behind their extraordinary secretive talkative openness there was nothing, no personal interest or wonder, no personality, only frozen wary secretiveness. And they had lives, and had gone back into them, or forward to them. (13)

Before this realization, the boarders and lodgers who had shared the house (sometimes for years) with Miriam were mostly window dressing that contribute to the “strange, lifeless, suspended atmosphere” of the house. It amazes her to consider that “[p]erhaps Mrs Bailey and Mr Gunner had always realized this…always seen them as people with other lives, not ghosts” (13). While few would deny that this is a textbook example of solipsism, the text stresses the italicized lives, staging the exact moment Miriam realizes that those around her have inner lives as rich as her own. Miriam’s epiphany does not last beyond that moment, however, and instead of meditating on the lives of specific boarders, she remembers a remark that, like her own earlier thoughts, generalizes boarders.

The remark Miriam remembers is a description of boarders she once heard or read: “…There’s not many stays ‘ere long; them as stays, stays always. A man’s writing; pleased with making a single phrase stand for a description of a third rate boarding-house, not seeing that it turned him into a third-rate boarding-house” (14). Even though Miriam rejects the idea that this hackneyed and clever phrase can stand for the complexity and variability of her surroundings, it has stuck with her:

These afterthoughts always came, answering the man’s phrase; but they had not prevented his description from coming up always, now together with any thoughts of the house. There was a truth in it, but not anything of the whole truth. It was like a photograph…it made you see the slatternly servant and the house and the dreadful-looking people going in and out. Clever phrases that make you see things by a deliberate arrangement, leave an impression that is false to life. (14). 

Phrases that contain truth, but “not anything of the whole truth” cause life to seem deliberately planned, thus cutting us off from the uniqueness of each newly experienced moment. The space between the long-remembered phrase and the complexities of the real house annoys Miriam, and by linking the two-dimensional snapshot quality of it explicitly to “a man’s phrase,” Richardson suggests that she hopes to do something different in her own writing, bringing a three-dimensionality to her portrayal of Miriam that is more true to life. 

Miriam’s continual generalization of individuals into types typifies the critique of artists made by both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. For both philosophers, what is not yet fully human or ethical in the artist and art is what Levinas in other places calls ideality. In Otherwise Than Being, Levinas writes:

The detour of ideality leads to coinciding with oneself, that is, to certainty, which remains the guide and guarantee of the whole spiritual adventure of being. But this is why this adventure is no adventure. It is never dangerous; it is self-possession, severity. Anything unknown that can occur to it is in advance disclosed, open, manifest, is cast in the mould of the known, and cannot be a complete surprise. (100) 

Ideality, by positing everything, including other people, as knowable, makes all consciousness self-consciousness, and by failing to engage “the spiritual adventure of being” thus misses out on life.
Richardson’s interviews and essays about Pilgrimage show an ongoing interest in the novel’s potential for expanding the limits of representing subjectivity through writing. Her evolving awareness of the limits of realist fiction for representing consciousness as she understood it inspired Richardson to experiment with other ways of writing. Richardson noted in a 1931 interview that when she began writing Pilgrimage she was “telling about Miriam, describing her. There she was as I first saw her, going upstairs. But who was there to describe her?” (Morgan 400). This question is vital to understanding Richardson’s view of her project in two ways. First, it reveals her awareness of the spaces existing between an author, a reader, and a protagonist (even in an autobiographical novel). In a sense she is enacting a Husserlian phenomenological reduction of Miriam’s consciousness so as to examine and describe it to readers. Often in Pilgrimage, the narrator’s separateness from Miriam, and the reader’s growing awareness of the space between the narrator and Miriam, is key to understanding the events in the novels. Secondly, by questioning who exists to see a lone character (outside of the character herself), Richardson highlights the degree to which otherwise unseen narrators and authors shape a readers’ perception of characters. But even more importantly, her question demonstrates Richardson’s formal concern with manipulating these spaces, and her desire to move beyond only “telling about Miriam.” Diane Gillespie points out that, in Pilgrimage, Richardson “experimented with eliminating the traditional, usually male, authorial voice which, to varying degrees, condescends to an inferior reader and coerces him or her to see the character as he does…. Richardson posited a reader equal to the task of collaborating with her to discover the quality of life as it is being lived by her character” (395). Richardson’s narrative relies on a cooperative audience, and we can locate Richardson’s ethical position as a writer in this symbiotic relationship between narration and reader. Her respect for the reader as partner also requires a great deal more from readers than other narrative forms that cast readers as passive recipients. As George H. Thomson notes, “Richardson assumed a collaborative reader, endowed like herself with powers of sustained concentration, ready to venture into the elaborate ‘reality’ of her text and quarry it at will” (Reader’s 10). Not only does Richardson’s narrative in Pilgrimage acknowledge the existence of others, but Richardson also asserts the importance of other minds by relying on the reader’s active engagement for the narrative’s success. The inevitable nature of an author’s perspective is also highlighted when Richardson writes in the essay “Novels”: “Is not every novel a conducted tour? First and foremost into the personality of the author who, wily-nilly, and whatever be his method of approach, must present the reader with the writer’s self-portrait…. He will reveal whether directly or by implication, his tastes, his prejudices, and his philosophy” (“Novels” 434). Richardson does not see the inevitable revelation of the author’s personality and self-portrait as necessarily negative, but by denying that this even occurs, the realist novel fails. “Every novel” offers the creator’s portrait to a reader, but few authors consciously build an awareness of this inevitability into the fabric of the text. 

This awareness is made explicit in Richardson’s 1919 letter of advice to Owen Wadsworth, an aspiring writer of autobiographical fiction who asked her to read a draft of his work. In her detailed response, Richardson advised Wadsworth that “to achieve full current reality” he must “accept his [the character’s] limitations,” by keeping the narrator focused and limiting the perspective:

[Y]ou must not see more than he saw not be “all round” what he saw….It excludes absolutely any information given by you, the author, in its own right; any commentary, or conclusive statement, on your past with regard to scenes and conversations he registers and memorises, but without relating them to any imagined whole. The imagined whole is there in your own mind clearly and coherently, but it must not come neatly from him. (“Letter” 28)

This letter clearly demonstrates the methodological nature of Richardson’s portrayal of Miriam. Just as she advised Wadsworth, Richardson herself honored these limitations, resisting the consolation of an omniscient narrator and refraining from reflective commentary that would critique Miriam’s thoughts and conversations (something a narrator who could see “all round” and would direct readers on how to interpret Miriam’s actions) would provide. In this way, Richardson allows the reader to construct a “whole” that is uniquely her own and not imposed by heavy-handed authorial intervention.

Richardson sought a more equal relationship between readers and text, and believed that this equality resided in a textual awareness of the relationship between author, reader, and character.5 In her 1938 foreword to Pilgrimage, Richardson elaborates on the failure of writing that only tells readers about the character. She notes that realists “believe themselves to be substituting, for the telescopes of the writers of romance whose lenses they condemn as both rose-colored and distorting, mirrors of plain glass” (9). For Richardson realist novels are guilty of failing methodologically at approaching consciousness and representing interiority precisely because they believe they can avoid representation’s inherent distortion. As Richardson’s project grew, she began to see the “failure” of recreating reality through writing: she “became increasingly tormented, not only by the failure of this now so assertive reality, adequately to appear within the text, but by its revelation, whencesoever focused, of a hundred faces, any one of which, the moment it was entrapped within the close mesh of direct statement, summoned its fellows to disqualify it” (10). Richardson expresses her ethical trepidation here in the language of “failure,” inadequacy, and entrapment: rather than claiming any piece of writing can mirror reality through “direct statement,” or should even attempt to, her project indirectly recognizes the countless other facets of reality—these other “faces”—by focusing on only one consciousness and her experiences.

To more fully explain the relevant intersection of Richardson’s Pilgrimage with Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, I would like to explore in more detail one of the early moments in which these two philosophers came together amid the intellectual scene in post-World War II Paris. In many ways, Merleau-Ponty's insightful introduction to Levinas’s essay “Reality and Its Shadow” in Les Temps Modernes succinctly lays the ethical cards on the table, setting forth a critique of art and artists in which Dorothy Richardson as a modernist artist was already engaged.

In his introduction, Merleau-Ponty notes that for Levinas, art “places itself prior to the true world, and the artist as artist is not yet a human.” Merleau-Ponty to some extent agrees with this assessment: “There is in reality a solitude on the part of the writer; there is, in literary and artistic expression, a putting into question of oneself, a pensive mood that make[s] of the writer a bad advocate, and frequently a human without character, as they say” (“Reality” 119). In this solitude and pensiveness, Merleau-Ponty is articulating skepticism not about the necessity or possibility of art, but more about the artist’s lack of engagement with the world and others. 

What I find most interesting in Merleau-Ponty’s very brief introduction occurs when he links art’s importance not with the final artistic product and its effect on the reader, but with the artistic project and the problem of consciousness. He writes, “[c]onsciousness seeks to fascinate itself, to call up the thing, which is irreparably absent, through its physiognomy, its style, its cloak. It was to define art as the strange attempt to obtain a pseudo-presence of the world without the means of objective knowledge” (119). Here he argues that definitions of art that claim to replicate reality or consciousness fail because they only can wear its “cloak” and therefore lack a presence in the world. The failure here lies more in the lack of true ethical engagement with the world than with the finished artistic product. Levinas explains that this problem is not unique to imaginative literature but affects all writing, because “no writer of prose, even the most lucid, understands completely what he means…the entire enterprise of human expression finds itself in a precarious position.”  Merleau-Ponty says that Levinas “leaves to a philosophical critique the task of reclaiming art for truth, of retying the bonds between ‘disengaged’ thought and the other, between the play of art and the seriousness of life” (120). He contrasts Levinas’s warning with Sartre’s “optimism,” saying Sartre “thinks that art and literature can save themselves if they recognize themselves as living speech or meaning, and that the freedom of art has an accomplice in every man” (120). Merleau-Ponty's inclusion of Sartre as interlocutor for Levinas occurs for several reasons. Les Temps Modernes was, after all, Sartre's journal and Sartre had written extensively on the possibilities in literature.6 In "What is Literature?" Sartre set the poetic attitude in opposition to prose "Poets are men who refuse to utilize language" (29). Merleau-Ponty concludes that for both Sartre and Levinas, to be ethically engaged the artistic consciousness “has to be saved from itself” (120). 

Levinas is skeptical of the ethical possibility of art, and makes his critique of aesthetics explicit in “Reality and its Shadow.” While the essay mentions all forms of art, in the second half Levinas specifically addresses literature and modern novels: 

The characters of a novel are beings that are shut up, prisoners. Their history is never finished, it still goes on, but makes no headway. A novel shuts beings up in a fate despite their freedom. Life solicits the novelist when it seems to him as if it were already something out of a book. Something somehow completed arises from it, as though a whole set of facts were immobilized and formed a series…The events related form a situation—akin to a plastic ideal. (139)

The plastic nature of events corresponds to Miriam’s observation in Backwater regarding phrases that “make you see things by a deliberate arrangement, leave an impression that is false to life” (Backwater 14). Here Levinas is arguing that events in a completed novel are fated when placed in a series, therefore despite the insight a writer may give a reader, “he spills half the water he brings us” (“Reality” 142–43). Despite these serious reservations, Levinas does see ethical potential in literature, noting at the end of the essay, “Modern literature…certainly manifests a more and more clear awareness of this fundamental insufficiency of artistic idolatry” (143). The following section examines how the deliberate focus of Richardson’s narrative attempts to avoid the negative fixity Levinas articulates above. 

Throughout Pilgrimage Miriam evinces a changing relationship with the written word. In Backwater, she binge-reads “two penny novels” and whole volumes by Ouida, but this obsession is described more as a distraction from life than an engagement with it: “She was spending hours of the time that was meant for sleep, for restful preparation for the next day’s work, in a ‘vicious circle’ of self-indulgence” (Backwater 177). These books lead Miriam to become unhappy when she starts to compare her life with those of the virtuous “simple” maidens who make happy marriages: “If Rosa Nouchette Carey [the author] knew me, she’d make me one of the bad characters who are turned out of happy homes. I’m some sort of bad unsimple woman” (181). Miriam’s voracious reading appetite then turns to adventure stories with “gabled country houses” and “large rooms with carved oaken furniture” peopled with moneyed romantic heroines possessed of “beautiful wavering complexions and masses of shimmering hair catching the light” (182). Miriam wants more than momentary escapism from the texts she reads and turns away from these adventure stories as well, seeing them as “a dreamy sunlit indulgence” and “mocking happy books.” Miriam ultimately turns to Ouida, finishing a volume in two nights “…refreshed. From that moment the red-bound volumes became the centre of her life” (183). In Dawn’s Left Hand, Miriam has a strong critique of how invasive the usual authorial voice can be: “The torment of all novels is what is left out. The moment you are aware of it, there is torment in them. Band, bang, bang, on they go, these men’s books like an L.C.C. tram, yet unable to make you forget them, the authors, for a moment” (239). Years later Miriam’s eventual disdain for all novels in Deadlock reflects Richardson’s rejection of prior narrative representations of reality. She tells her friend and fellow boarder Michael Shatov, “I don’t care for novels…I can’t see what they are about. They seem to be an endless fuss about nothing” (45). While this can be read as a moment of Richardson’s self-referential humor, Miriam’s repeated frustration with novels recalls the larger distinction Richardson makes between Pilgrimage and earlier, more traditional novels. Miriam is much more interested in reading philosophy and debating it, saying at one point that novels “showed only one side of people, the outside; if they showed them alone, it was only to explain what they felt about other people” (Deadlock 168).7 Deadlock‘s depiction of novels and writing is also important because it is in writing that Miriam discovers a different kind of freedom. 

Another boarder living in the house, Mr. Lahitte, asks Miriam to help him edit for an English audience a series of lectures he plans to give on Spanish literature. At first this project frustrates Miriam because whenever she reads “non-philosophical books,” the only thing she gets out of them is “the author; in the first few lines; and after that, wanting to change him and break up his shape or going about for days thinking everything in his shape” (131). Lahitte’s lecture is a “fraud” because “there was nothing there” but “only Mr Lahitte; a voice like an empty balloon” (131). While Miriam dislikes the reflection of Mr. Lahitte’s personality in his lectures, she finds the imprint of her personality on a page liberating. When she reads back through her notes, Miriam discovers “they were alive, gravely, after the manner of her graver self. It was a curious marvel, a revelation irrevocably put down, reflecting a certain sort of character…more oneself than anything that could be done socially, together with others….she had now unconsciously confessed herself in her writing.” (132) 

In Deadlock Miriam dislikes reading anything but philosophy because she cannot ignore the overbearing nature of the writer/reader relationship. Yet she enjoys translation and editing for similar reasons, because they allow her to assert her character. By fully immersing herself in Mr. Lahitte’s writing, Miriam does not engage with Lahitte so much as she finds herself. Through her work on translation Miriam finds herself liberated from the problems and hardships that have faced her since arriving in London and is able to again feel potential and hope. The self-discovery that happens as a result of engaging with Lahitte’s ideas refreshes Miriam and gives the other moments in her life renewed meaning. Her room is again “the new room she had entered on the day of her arrival” and 

[t]he years that had passed were a single short interval leading to the restoration of that first moment…. Nothing would matter now that the paper-scattered lamplit circle was established as the centre of life. Everything would be an everlastingly various joyful coming back. Held up by this secret place, drawing her energy from it, any sort of life would do that left this room and its little table free and untouched. (134)

As long as this space for writing exists, Miriam has the chance to come back to it. She falls asleep believing she can continue engaging the people and things she finds in the outside world because of the freedom she finds at the writing table. Miriam feels as if “she had entered a companionship that now spread like a shield between her and the life she had so far dealt with unaided” (135). This is a curious construction, because while the pleasure of writing allows Miriam to engage with Lahitte’s mind, she also feels protected from the worldly frustrations of her dead-end job as a dental secretary and the oppressive forced familiarity in her low-end boardinghouse. Editing does not open Miriam up to a Merleau-Pontian “being-with” others, but does give her the strength to continue facing day-to-day indignities.

From a narratological perspective, this moment is unique in Deadlock because of the continuity of time and space from one chapter to the next. Chapter four ends with Miriam in her room at night, feeling her life has changed. Chapter five begins the next morning, with Miriam in the same state of emotion from the chapter before. The next day “the spell of the ink-stained table had survived the night” (135). While in other novels this continuity may seem fairly standard—usually readers can expect orienting markers that situate the characters in space, or explain time of day or season—typically Pilgrimage unmoors readers from these details, because these obvious things do not register in Miriam’s active thoughts. This stylistic contrast highlights the long-term significance writing holds for Miriam. The morning after her revelation she realizes her pleasure rests in writing's ability to allow for “forgetting,” and in that forgetting, Miriam “found something”: 

But the forgetfulness was itself a more real life, if it made life disappear and then show itself only as a manageable space and at last only as an indifferent distance. A game to be played, or even not played. It [writing] meant putting life and people second; only entering life to come back again, always. This new joy of going into life, the new beauty, on everything, was the certainty of coming back. (135–36). 

Writing is liberatory and life-affirming for Miriam, but does not break through her self-absorbedness and contribute to a lasting intersubjectivity. While on the one hand Miriam’s initial joy in translation can be viewed as a beginning toward “being with others” in Merleau-Pontian terms, the intersubjective relationship with Lahitte’s mind and the larger world of “life” is secondary to the self-knowledge afforded by putting her thoughts on paper. Miriam uses writing to avoid the Levinasian “face to face” of ethical relation with another person. This passage articulates the solipsistic nature of Miriam’s newfound passion, which makes life into a “game” and puts “people second.” This “more real life” depends on the outer world’s status as fodder for the return to self writing gives her.

Miriam’s relationship with Michael Shatov drives the plot of Deadlock, which begins on the day she meets him and ends the moment she decides not to accept his marriage proposal.8  Examining their relationship more closely, specifically the moments of conflict or disagreement between the two characters, shows Miriam to be struggling with the changes she notices in herself as a result of their connection, and her tendencies toward insular solitude. Early in their friendship, Miriam and Michael visit the British Museum, and she tries to get him to see her “beloved corridor” the Egyptian gallery the way she does, telling him, “If I got locked into the museum at night I should stay in this gallery.” The distance between the narrator and Miriam expands following this statement, creating space that allows readers to empathize with her, but ultimately to also see the contradiction in her logic: “‘If I got locked into the museum at night I should stay in this gallery,’ she said unable to bear companionship in her sanctuary without extorting some recognition of its never-failing quality” (63). The judgmental tone conveys both Miriam’s frustration and the selfish motivation behind her statement, which only become evident to the reader through the narrator’s commentary. This intervention, more overt than in most other moments in Deadlock, continues throughout the passage. She tries again to spell out for Michael why she likes it so much, and when he is not suitably impressed with the gallery, Miriam realizes: 

The chill of Mr Shatov’s indifferent response to her explanation was buried in her private acknowledgment that it was he who had forced her to discover something of the reason of her enchantment. He forced her to think. She reflected that solitude was too easy. It was necessary, for certainties. Nothing could be known except in solitude. But the struggle to communicate certainties gave them new life; even if the explanation were only a small piece of the truth…The extraordinary new thing was that she could think, untroubled, in his company. (63)

The narrator’s intervention here, by spelling out the stages of Miriam’s minor epiphany reveals Miriam’s conflict. While Miriam wants to be alone to be free and think, in this minor clash with Michael she also realizes that relationships with other people are a necessary catalyst for thought. Moreover, articulating these thoughts, even if her explanation is failed and partial, crystallizes her feelings into words.
While Miriam continues to idealize the freedom and surety of solitude, Michael is somehow able to draw her out of herself and into an engagement with the larger world. Soon after their trip to the museum, while Miriam is talking with Michael, the narrator notes, “Far away beneath her clashing thoughts was something she wanted to express, something he did not know, and that yet she felt he might be able to shape for her if only she could present it….It seemed to be there when she was alone; only because there was no need to express anything” (76–77). The challenge of engaging Michael as a mind equal to her own forces Miriam out of the comfort of certainty. Throughout the novel, Miriam’s feelings for Michael are complex, because she both enjoys his company and resents the force of his worldly engagement that pulls her unwillingly along. Miriam finds herself looking forward to the moment when he leaves England: 

As long as he stayed, he would be there, without effort or encouragement from her, filling her spare hours with his untired beauty, drawing her…away from personal experiences, into a world going on independently of them; unaware of the many scattered interests waiting for her beyond this shabby room, and yet making them shine as he talked, newly alight with rich superfluous impersonal fascination, no longer isolated, but vivid parts of a whole, growing more and more intelligible as he carried her further and further into a life he saw so distinctly, that he made it hers. (77) 

In the place of the certainty of ideality and self-consciousness (in Levinasian terms), Michael’s openness and engagement help Miriam see the world differently, as richer and more vivid. Her resistance to Michael’s holistic world of participation is tempered by the ways their shared experiences draw her “scattered interests” into the larger world of connected ideas. 

Miriam’s inner struggle comes to a head at a moment when the novel explicitly stages the question of solipsism, finally giving it a voice in Michael. He and Miriam are walking home one evening from a philosophy lecture, engaged in one of their many debates. Miriam’s comment replicates and complicates Descartes’ classic maxim: 

Something exists. Metaphysics admits that….It’s enough. It answers everything. Even to have seen it for a moment is enough. The first time I thought of it I nearly died of joy. Descartes should have said “I am aware that there is something, therefore I am.” If I am, other people are; but that does not seem to matter. That is their own affair. (171; emphasis added)   

By reversing Descartes’ proof Miriam grounds her subjectivity outside herself, but she does not borrow her subjectivity from another, as in Merleau-Ponty, nor does she acknowledge the primacy of her responsibility to an other, as in Levinas. Miriam bases her subjectivity, the fact that “she is” on the existence of a vague “something” quite distinct from other people, because the existence of others “does not seem to matter.” She is aware that other people exist, but her acknowledgement of their subjectivity is not foundational to her existential awareness. Miriam’s primary concern is understanding her own status as subject, and insofar as she is unconcerned with the subjectivity of others, she can only be beside others and never truly with them in Merleau-Ponty’s sense. By refusing to acknowledge her responsibility for other people, by seeing their subjectivity (and indeed their existence) as “their affair” alone, Miriam also fails to participate in a Levinasian ethics for the other. 

These concerns are given voice in the novel through Michael, who immediately counters Miriam’s comment with the harsh warning “Beware of solipsism.” Miriam and Michael walk on in silence and soon part. Miriam then thinks, “‘I don’t care what it is called. It is certainty. You must begin with the individual. There we are again.’ There was an end to the conversation that could not be shared. The words of it already formed, intangibly, waited, ready to disappear, until she should be alone and could read them on a clear background. If she stayed they would disappear irrevocably” (227). At this point, Miriam hurries home, away from Michael and his warning, towards her unshared thoughts. Miriam refuses the possibility of intersubjectivity on two levels: abstractly when she says aloud that the existence of other people is “their own affair,” and literally when, instead of putting her reasoning into words for Michael, she decides to rush home alone to write her thoughts down. What it is important to note here is that while Miriam is not aware of the solipsistic danger of her logic, and the undesirability of fully removing herself from the world, both the text and her friend Michael are. 

Richardson’s narrative relies on a cooperative audience to see the space between narrative and character, and it is in this ongoing active engagement of the reader that we can locate Richardson’s ethical position as a writer. Kristin Bluemel notes that “Richardson’s experimental writing requires experimental reading; new strategies are needed to deal with our questions and enable us to realize the pleasures of the narrative. Those readers who want to enjoy Pilgrimage must suspend their desire to know and master the subject of the text” (14).  Not only does Richardson’s narrative in Pilgrimage acknowledge the existence of others, but Richardson also asserts the importance of other minds by relying on the reader’s active engagement for the narrative’s success. The extent to which Richardson’s writing posits an ethical partnership with her reader becomes more clear when we consider her unpublished essay “Authors and Readers,” in which she writes that a “reader is so very much more than a result, an appendage, so to speak of the author.” In contrast to writing that considers readers to be the recipient of a complete textual product, Richardson positions the reader-author relationship as a symbiosis that relies on what readers bring to the relationship.9 Richardson argues that 

[t]o do anything like full justice to their relationship, we need a composite word, something like the telegraphic name of a firm, expressing both partnership and collaboration.
Readers are far too modest. Always they regard themselves as recipients, never as donors. (qtd. in Winning 79)

By privileging “partnership and collaboration” over the normally dependent and occasionally awestruck relationship between reader and author, Richardson radically reforms the connection along more ethical and more challenging lines. After reading Deadlock in this way, one can better see how rather than ignoring the existence of other minds, Richardson’s narration instead bases itself on the existence of other minds. By showing readers Miriam’s vacillating and contradictory thoughts, the narrative itself opens up the possibility of intersubjectivity. This possibility is not achieved in a sustainable way for Miriam; in fact, we continually see her fail to achieve an ethical relationship or a lasting intersubjectivity. But where Miriam fails, Richardson’s Deadlock and Pilgrimage succeed by positing an equal and ethical relationship with readers who can see beyond Miriam’s solipsism.


1 Lawrence has exaggerated the length of Pilgrimage, which reached thirteen volumes with the posthumous publication of the March Moonlight in 1967. At the time Lawrence wrote “Surgery for the Novel” Pilgrimage had only reached seven novel-chapters. As Scott McCracken warns in his editorial in the first issue of Pilgrimages, “Tales of the critical neglect of Dorothy Richardson should be treated with caution.” The 2007 founding of The Dorothy Richardson Society and its biannual conferences of international Richardson scholars has been at the forefront of this resurgence. The 2008 launch of the society’s annual journal Pilgrimages: A Journal of Dorothy Richardson Studies; recent book length studies by David Stamm (A Pathway to Reality: Visual and Aural Concepts in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, 2000), Joanne Winning (The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson, 2000), and Elisabeth Bronfen (Dorothy Richardson’s Art of Memory: Space, Identity, Text, 2011); the 2014 Broadview Press reissue of North American editions of both Pointed Roofs (vol. 1) and The Tunnel (vol. 4); and the Richardson Editions Project plans to publish new editions of Pilgrimage, Richardson’s letters, and short fiction all attest to the ever-growing body of popular and critical interest in her work.

2 Dorothy Miller Richardson’s headstone bears the mark of this enduring conflation as well: it shows her name as Dorothy Miriam Richardson.

3 It is important to mention that at certain points Pilgrimage is written in first person. As Joann Winning notes in The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson, “Authorial intervention and the incoming use of the first person pronoun shift through the novel-sequence” (30). Winning notes the first use of “I” occurs at the end of the third novel Honeycomb, when Miriam’s mother kills herself. By the time she was writing the tenth novel, Dawn’s Left Hand, “Miriam’s autonomy coexists in a symbiotic relationship with Richardson’s authorial pronouncements, and the text shifts easily between the she and the I” (30).

4 While Levinas and Merleau-Ponty published too late to be among the many philosophers with whom Richardson (and her character Miriam) were likely engaged, both men were influenced by, and wrote about, modern narrative.  

5 In “Dorothy Richardson and the Grammar of the Mind” Annika Lindskog examines how Richardson’s desire for creative collaboration with readers also extends to her experimentation and innovation with punctuation and use of blank spaces, devices Richardson used as a way of “inviting readers to engage more actively with the literary work.” Lindskog asserts that “to understand how the punctuation in Pilgrimage interacts with the words on the page requires a more personal involvement with the literary work.” For more on how Richardson’s stylistic choices engage (or alienate) readers, also see John Mepham in “Dorothy Richardson’s “Unreadability”: Graphic Style and Narrative Strategy in a Modernist Novel.”

6 Although Jean-Paul Sartre was chief editor for Les Temps Modernes when Levinas’s “Reality and its Shadow” first appeared in November 1948, it was Merleau-Ponty who wrote the introduction to the essay in which Levinas famously critiqued the ethical possibility of art. Merleau-Ponty’s authorship is noted by Jill Robbins (Altered Reading 83); Jean-Luc Lannoy (“D’une ambiguïté,” 14); Salomon Malka (Reading Levinas 32). The Merleau-Ponty Reader also attributes and includes the introduction (119–20).

7 The main philosophers Miriam reads are Stanley Jevons, Herbert Spencer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Benedict de Spinoza. Miriam and Michael attend lectures given by John Ellis McTaggert. For an extended discussion of how Realist and Idealist philosophy and other philosophic debates of the day factor in Deadlock, see Deborah Longworth’s “Subject, Object and the Nature of Reality: Metaphysics in Dorothy Richardson’s Deadlock.” Longworth explains that “[i]t is in Deadlock…that Richardson first shows philosophical ideas and inquiry taking persistent and organised shape in Miriam’s maturing thought.”

8 For more details on Miriam’s relationship with Michael, and the “metaphoric burdens the narrative places on Jewishness,” see Maren Linett’s “The Wrong Material: Gender and Jewishness in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.” Notes Linett: “Pilgrimage relies on the figure of a Jew [Michael Shatov] to reflect and shape its protagonist’s emotional and political concerns” (191).

9 The degree to which Richardson was cognizant of Pilgrimage’s reliance on the reader is also evident in her private writing.  In 1944 she “freely admit[ted] the demand for an equivalent degree of concentration from the reader” (Thomson, A Reader’s Guide 9).

Works Cited

Bluemel, Kristin. Experimenting on the Borders of Modernism: Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. Athens: U of Georgia P. 1997. 

Brome, Vincent. “A Last Meeting with Dorothy Richardson.” London Magazine 6.6 (June 1959): 26–32. 

Bronfen, Elisabeth. Dorothy Richardson’s Art of Memory: Space, Identity, Text. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2011. 

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 

Felber, Lynette. “A Manifesto for Feminine Modernism: Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.” Rereading Modernism: New Directions in Feminist Criticism. Ed. Lisa Rado. New York: Garland, 1994: 23–39. 

Fromm, Gloria. Dorothy Richardson: A Biography. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994.

Gillespie, Diane F. “Dorothy Richardson.” The Gender of Modernism. Ed. Bonnie Kime Scott. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 393–99. 

Heath, Stephen. “Writing for Silence: Dorothy Richardson and the Novel.” Teaching The Text. Ed. Susanne Kappeler and Norman Bryson. London: Routledge, 1983. 126–47. 

Husserl, Edmund. Formal and Transcendental Logic. Trans. Dorian Cairns. The Hague: Springer, 1977. 

Lawrence, D. H. “Surgery for the Novel—or a Bomb.” Selected Critical Writings. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. 142–46. 

Levinas, Emmanuel. Difficult Freedom. Trans. Sean Hand. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. 

---. Otherwise than Being. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1998. 

---. “Reality and its Shadow.” The Levinas Reader. Ed. Sean Hand Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. 129-43.

---. “The Temptation of Temptation.” Nine Talmudic Readings. Trans. Annette Aronowitz. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. 30-50.

Lindskog, Anikka J. “Dorothy Richardson and the Grammar of the Mind.” Pilgrimages: The Journal of Dorothy Richardson Studies 6 (2013–14): n. pag. 20 May 2011. Web. 

Linett, Maren. “The Wrong Material: Gender and Jewishness in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.” Journal of Modern Literature 23.2 (2000): 191–208. 

Longworth, Deborah. “Subject, Object and the Nature of Reality: Metaphysics in Dorothy Richardson’s Deadlock.” Pilgrimages: The Journal of Dorothy Richardson Studies 2 (2009): n. pag. 20 May 2011. Web. 

McCracken, Scott. “Editorial.” Pilgrimages: The Journal of Dorothy Richardson Studies 1 (2008): n. pag. 20 May 2011. Web. 

Mepham, John. “Dorothy Richardson’s “Unreadability”: Graphic Style and Narrative Strategy in a Modernist Novel.” English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 43.4 (2000): 449–464. 

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Reality and its Shadow.” The Merleau-Ponty Reader. Ed Ted Toadvine and Leonard Lawter. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2007. 119–20. 

---. Phenomenology of Perception. 1945. Trans. Colin Smith. New York: Routledge, 2002. 
---. Signs. Trans. Richard C. McCleary. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1964. 

Morgan, Louise. “How Writers Work: Dorothy Richardson.” Everyman (22 Oct 1931): 395–96, 400. 

Radford, Jean. Dorothy Richardson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. 

Richardson, Dorothy. Backwater. 1916. New York: Knopf, 1919. 

---. Deadlock. 1921. New York: Knopf, 1967. 

---. Dawn’s Left Hand. 1931. New York: Knopf, 1967. 

---. “Novels”  The Gender of Modernism. Ed. Bonnie Kime Scott. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990: 432–35. 

Robbins, Jill. Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. 

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “What is Literature?” “What is Literature?” and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. 

Stamm, David. A Pathway to Reality: Visual and Aural Concepts in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. Marburg: Francke Verlag, 2000. 

Thomson, George H. “Dorothy Richardson’s Foreword to Pilgrimage.” Twentieth-Century Literature 42:3 (1996): 344–59. 

—. A Reader’s Guide to Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. Greensboro: ELT, 1996. 

Winning, Joanne. The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2000. 

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