Serving Tables: Reification, Domestication, and Hybridity in Flush

The following guest essay is by Nell Pach, a 2011 graduate of the University of East Anglia’s prose fiction master’s program and a current Ph.D student in English literature at the University of Chicago. Read Nell’s Wallace Prize-winning short story, “The Catechumen,” here. For more of her work on modernist studies, please see her 2009 featured paper on Yale University’s Modernism Lab page here.

At beginning and end, Virginia Woolf weights Flush, her “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, with Barrett Browning’s own eponymous poem for the dog, detailing in an early chapter the incident that inspires the poem and quoting the poem itself in full in the final page. What is recounted in Barrett Browning’s “Flush, or Faunus” is a moment of heady misidentification: tearful and distracted, the speaker – presumably Barrett Browning herself – half-seriously takes a nuzzling Flush for Pan. Such conflations and confusions – Flush, or Faunus, as if either would be right, the latter itself a hybrid man-goat – define the institution of pet-keeping, argues Marc Shell in “The Family Pet”. Pets, as animals considered family members by their owners, occupy a liminal position between traditional binaries: they are human and beast, kin and outsider; they can “leap familial…and species boundaries”.[1] The danger of making pets, Shell says, is that faced with the untenable alternative of communalizing being, viewing all non-human animals and even all life-forms as potential family members, loving keepers instead learn to distinguish their pets ontologically from other kinds of creatures – working animals, laboratory rodents, food – and reconcile their cruelty or indifference to non-pet animals by simply not according these animals the being status that they grant their pets. For contemporary pet-lovers and Cartesians alike, “animals as such do not really exist”[2] – a petted animal is personified into “a kind of human being”,[3] un-petted animals are “mere things”.[4] Conceiving the latter otherwise, even conceiving a way to conceive otherwise, “would require a leap of the imagination”[5] that Shell declines to essay.

Woolf’s project is not to unreify the un-petted animal, but what she offers is in a sense the converse: the seemingly contradictory reification of the pet. If to keep a special animal, as Shell argues, is to hybridize it, to make it embody multiple identities that would appear to exclude each other, Woolf explores in Flush (and in Flush) another even harder hybridization: the pet as beloved family member and thing at once. Flush, though a pet, doesn’t escape conflation and on occasion equation with the objects through which his relationship to his owner is mediated; in his increasing domestication, his pettification, he becomes not just part of the family but part of the household as well in the most concrete sense, level with the furniture and curios that fill it. Woolf makes jumpy Flush leap the ultimate bound between living and nonliving. The novel that recounts the process of Flush’s domestication and coinciding reification, though, is not an indictment of his owner; there is none of Shell’s worry about the moral consequences of pet ownership. Thinking the thinging of Flush, Woolf stresses Flush’s engagement in the process; his reification, depicted from his point of view and not that of Barrett Browning, is largely self-administered and self-accomplished, if not self-imposed. As he learns to live domestically, to identify and distinguish the hardware of domestic life, Flush – in Woolf’s inescapably human imagining, of course – comes in fact to identify more and more with the world of things, to hold himself apart from human and animal alike.

The novel starts with a kind of cosmic totality, a blurring of all distinction between living things, between life and nonlife, in the parodically grand evocation of primordial tectonic movement and time on a geologic scale. This is not the Christian totality that Shell speaks of – God as father-creator, believers left to accept that they are kin to all of living creation and thus forced to deny the being of certain creatures if they do not want to stave, to reify them into food – but a sort of loosely scientific one, lyrical but materialist, an unconscious “ferment of creation” (3) that gives rise to continents, rabbits, dogs. Woolf presents the Spaniel made general, the hypostatized singular-plural, “the dog that caught the rabbit”.(3) The elemental spaniel unbounded ranges over antique Spain in pursuit of rabbits, its name linking it to the land and to the rabbits, span twice over. Dog, shouting Carthaginian men, rabbits, even the scrub where the rabbits hide – all are joined in a single image, one entity, the squirming “Rabbit-land” (4). A paragraph later, though, Woolf undercuts this origin story with more pedestrian etymology: Spain, and spaniel with it, descend from españa, “signifying an edge or boundary” (4). The vision of wild freedom cedes to a verbal abstraction – one implying confinement and separation, no less, bounds – and, animal-like, the word itself is domesticated, walled off from the organic mesh of animals, people, plants. (The suggestion that the name derives from a playfully derogatory word suggesting ugliness “as a lover calls his mistress monster or monkey” (4) is dismissed with a shudder of ersatz modesty, as if to spare the delicate sensibilities of the novel’s Victorian human subjects. Shell, of course, cites the practice of giving “pet names” to one’s intimates, of calling them after animals, as one expression of the human-animal conflation that pet-keeping effects.) The progress of the novel’s individual dog protagonist recalls this trajectory: born in the English countryside, the puppy Flush spends his days outside, possessed by ancestral memories, driven to run; passed to London-dwelling Elizabeth Barrett, he is suddenly a house pet, confined much of the time to a single room, even to a single piece of furniture – the sofa to which the invalid Barrett is bound when Flush meets her.

The politics and landscape of that sofa – who sits on it, who lies on the floor; who aspires to the sofa, and who cannot leave it – and of the other myriad Barrett furnishings and ornaments unimaginable to him in his country life, come to guide Flush’s perception of the world and even to dictate his happiness. To become an inside animal is to master the intricate geography of the human-made environment, to learn to recognize the physical and figurative bounds and rules – arbitrary at first, to Flush, and inscrutable – that define the domestic interior. Mastery here, however, cannot imply that Flush becomes master of his learned environment in any sense. Despite permanent residency, he obviously never assumes even partial ownership of the Barrett or Barrett-Browning households or any of the things within them; rather, he must find a literal place in the households, jockey for position among the objects, ally with them against common enemies. His relationship to the other living beings of the house – the dogs, the people, even to the mistress on whose behalf he undergoes the indignities of domestication – must pass through the nonliving. Throughout the novel, his most emotionally intense interactions are with the furniture, which plays by turns mysterious seductress; adversary; and finally comfort, old friend.

Flush comes to Barrett’s family home in London’s formidable Wimpole Street from a world of pluripotent, omnipresent, and emphatically unfurnished life; identities are undifferentiated and mutable, and Flush slips through time as freely as he moves through space, forgetting “all humankind” (12) during the walks that put him in instinctive communion with spaniels of ages past, blurring his experience with theirs. Nearly everything he encounters in life at Three Mile Cross with his first owner, the penurious Miss Mitford, is alive – even inside the shabby Mitford manse, furnishings of any kind are scarce, and the “most important room” is in fact “a large greenhouse” (11), used not to show off the best furniture or objets d’art but to shelter more life. Flush is exposed to the elements, without “any of those luxuries, rainproof kennels, cement walks” (11) that his breeding might be thought to merit, and his contact is strictly with the growing and living:

…[He] leapt hither and thither, parting [the grass’s] green curtain…the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells…thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered bean fields…the smell of hare, the smell of fox. (12)

Despite her poverty, Flush is, to Miss Mitford, an individual who exists outside of the economy of exchangeable things, unable to be conceived in financial terms; he may be an object of a kind, but a singular and irreducible one, not to be converted or liquefied: he is “of the rare order of objects that cannot be associated with money”  (14).

Flush’s first experience of the house’s still interior world is one of sensual overload not unlike sudden infatuation. Glutted as he habitually is on the organic, he is ill-equipped to negotiate the prescribed bounds and hierarchies of houses, and is both flustered and titillated. The animate and inanimate vie for his attention, but the latter, muddled though it is at first, proves to have the stronger claim. The house bursts with the inanimate – once-alive “carved mahogany…joints roasting…fowls basting”, never-living “filigree ornaments…daggers and swords…thick rich carpets…” (18) – all mingled, humans and food and objects alike equal and joined in the democracy of Flush’s nose. Against the earlier exuberant list of wild smells Woolf sets a parallel series of the domestic, a list in which the living are gestured at only in the vaguest of terms as “bodies”:

…smells of cedarwood and sandalwood and mahogany; scents of male bodies and female bodies; of men servants and maid servants; of coats and trousers; of crinolines and mantles; of curtains of tapestry; of curtains of plush; of coal dust and fog; of wine and cigars. (18)

Like a single organism the house takes him in as he takes it in, its objects claiming him at the same time that he tries to enjoy them: his paws are “caressed and retained” by the carpets that “clos[e] amorously” (19) over them. His senses are at once overstimulated and thwarted, and he finds it literally difficult to see clearly, does not know where or how to look; the “curtain of green damask” (19) – counterpoint to the “green curtain” of grass that he parted easily on country walks – keeps Barrett’s bedroom dark and all he can make out of his new home at first is the seeming apparition of “five white globes glimmering mysteriously in mid-air.” (19) These are busts of famous poets, representations of humans that draw Flush’s attention long before the actual human in the room – herself to be “England’s foremost poetess” (15) – does. Everything in the room shifts and overspills its borders like images refracted through water, separated and identified only with great concentration on Flush’s part, and only conjecturally so:

Very slowly, very dimly…Flush by degrees distinguished the outlines of several articles of furniture. That huge object by the window was perhaps a wardrobe. Next to it stood, conceivably, a chest of drawers. In the middle of the room swam up to the surface what seemed to be a table with a ring round it; and then the vague amorphous shapes of armchair and table emerged. But everything was disguised…Nothing in the room was itself; everything was something else. Even the window-blind was not a simple muslin blind; it was a painted fabric with a design of castles and gateways and groves of trees, and there were several peasants taking a walk. (20)

Vast ontological uncertainty reigns – Flush is not just unable to categorize the covered and embellished furniture but unable to successfully divide what he sees along the simplest lines of alive and not: the initially invisible table and armchair reveal themselves as if of their own volition, the table swims. The landscape on the blind is mediated as “design”, but what are presumably also only drawings of human figures are described directly as “peasants taking a walk”, as if they are living entities in motion. A moment later Flush fails to recognize his own reflection in a mirror, taking himself, among multiplied poet busts, for another dog. The real people in the room are indistinct afterthoughts, vague beings whose being is not even certain – they register with Flush as “huge objects in commotion over him” (21) – and Flush does not realize, after Miss Mitford’s exit, that he is not alone, cannot at first pick Barrett out where she lies: “Was there something alive in the room with him? Was there something on the sofa?” (22) The episode culminates with Flush finally managing to look at her by locating her on the furniture, relative to the furniture – she is first to him “the lady lying on the sofa” (22) – and taking up his place on the rug at her feet, his place determined by the sofa and the rug, which separate him physically and, in the text, verbally from Barrett.

In the account of the months that follow Woolf highlights not Flush’s growing acquaintance with Barrett but his all-absorbing quest for object-fluency. The summer is characterized for Flush first by its interior location, and only second by the person with whom he occupies the object-crowded space: “It was a summer spent in a bedroom; a summer spent with Miss Barrett.” (27) The objects distract from Barrett, the animals, the humans, and for a long time “nothing but the bedroom and its furniture” (27) can hold Flush’s attention. He passes the summer in diligent study, his first task being not to familiarize himself with the other members of the household but to “identify, distinguish and call by their right names all the different articles” (27) in Barrett’s room. The mystical common “memories” that make him Spaniel, singular-plural, or even something more rudimentary, must be subordinated, and household objects that at first act as conduits to these intimations of wildness must be recognized as such and neutered. Particular challenges include the maid’s wet umbrella, which recalls for Flush “forests and parrots and wild trumpeting elephants” (36), and the house bell-pull, the noise of which prompts Flush, “some muffled, ancestral rage” (36) to bite a Barrett family friend who accidentally sets it off.

Alongside the individuality of the things in the Barrett household thus emerges a related awareness of his own individuality and that of other dogs – the unity of Dog cedes to an understanding of breeds and the idiosyncrasies of particular animals – Flush begins to count specific partialities and enmities among his canine acquaintances. Household objects guide this discrimination and delineation and restructure Flush’s sense of himself, a self he no longer experiences with the un-self-conscious immediacy of his open country life but now must locate relative to the things that reflect it back. Most obviously, he learns to use the mirror, and uses it, indeed, to shore up his growing understanding of hierarchy – his reflection confirms that he is one of the favored, a purebred spaniel, designated as financially valuable. He enlists further objects to support this interpretation of his status – there are his purple water jar and the chain that he is required to wear on the rare occasions when he is able to leave the house, the chain that grants him liberation, to some degree, but limits him as well. Flush is described to himself by these object-imposed limits, the degree of interaction that is possible with them. Barrett’s facility with the things of the house, her ability to handle them, is a source of jealousy and longing for him, a reminder of his morphological difference from her: “When he saw Miss Barrett’s thin hands delicately lifting some silver box or pearl ornament from the ringed table, his own furry paws seemed to contract and he longed that they should fine themselves to ten separate fingers.” (38) Such transformations are not to be, but a degree of traitorous distaste for the canine, and commensurate change in behavior, do result from his proximity to objects. Employing a “Greek lexicon” (47) as a pillow – an accoutrement he would have had little use for in his pastoral existence at Three Mile Cross – he comes as if by osmosis “to dislike barking and biting…to prefer the silence of the cat to the robustness of the dog; and human sympathy to either.” (47)

Flush’s sensitivity to human feeling, though, and his interactions with humans, must go through the medium of the material nonliving. Even his jealous attacks on Barrett’s suitor Robert Browning are aimed at the man’s clothing; his daydreams about biting Browning center not around the idea of getting his teeth into Browning himself but passing them through “the immaculate cloth of Mr. Browning’s trousers” (63). For his misbehavior he is banished not expressly from Barrett’s caresses or attentions but from the sofa to the carpet and then from the bedroom to the distastefully organic world – parrots, beetles, ferns – of the kitchen, and he finally communicates his resignation to Barrett’s friendship with Browning through an approach to Browning’s customary chair in the man’s own absence. His intercourse with humans becomes a metonymic one, anchored by their things. His sense that something is afoot in the household, that something is about to change, is always triggered by changes in the interior landscape. The arrival of guests is marked by such alteration, which Flush registers excitedly long before he bothers to ascertain the identity of the visitor – the new scents and noises of an arriving human first change his perception of the familiar objects and only as a kind of anticlimactic afterthought allow him to determine which human it is:

But sometimes….the door actually opened…Then how strangely the furniture changed its look! What extraordinary eddies of sound and smell were at once set in circulation! How they washed round the legs of tables and impinged on the sharp edges of the wardrobe! Probably it was Wilson… (39)

None of these arrivals – Wilson the maid, Barrett’s litter of ill-defined siblings, her family-friend callers – mean much to Flush. For him the sign and the event of a visit, even when he is not indifferent to the visitor, is the pronounced rearrangement and readying of the bedroom’s furnishings, a fastidious Victorian grooming for decent presentation from which Flush and even Barrett are not exempt:

The bed would be carefully disguised as a sofa. The armchair would be drawn up beside it; Miss Barrett herself would be wrapped becomingly in Indian shawls; the toilet things would be scrupulously hidden under the busts of Chaucer and Homer; Flush himself would be combed and brushed. (40)

The habitual passive voice is insistent here, a sawing repetition of “would be”: the wrapping of Barret and of the bed are equally weighted, actions performed upon them with no agent apparent, as if the changes are natural as shifts of season. Flush’s lauded intuition for “human emotions” (47) seems to be in fact a sensitivity to the refraction of human emotion in human objects. Human emotion and intention are most obvious to him when object-enabled artifice is at its height, when things are manipulated. He knows life has become – or soon will be – vastly different when he sees Barrett hide a ring in a bedroom drawer. In the following days her secret marriage and impending elopement tells for Flush in the changes registered in the conspiring furniture; Barrett herself is inscrutable:

The very movement of the blind…seemed…like a signal. And as the lights and shadows passed over the busts they too seemed to be hinting and beckoning. Everything in the room seemed to be aware of change; to be prepared for some event…Miss Barrett talked and laughed and gave no sign when anyone was in the room that she was hiding anything. (104)

Over the course of his peripatetic life with the Barrett-Brownings, assembled trunks and possessions tip Flush off to human agitation, excitement, “crises” (136). Transpiring as it does within her body and without much object mediation, Barrett’s pregnancy almost slips by him completely – his only hint of it is Barrett’s confinement to the house, her newly acquired practice of sewing and Wilson’s rearrangement of the furniture – she moves a bed and stocks a drawer with clothing.

Such moments, when he loses touch with Barrett, occur more frequently as the novel continues, and she falls in intangible love with Browning and eventually takes leave of her bedroom and its things.  In her absence Flush looks to furniture for comfort, seeks it out like the company of old friends. Humans and other animals are no substitute; their presence, for instance, in the notably furniture-poor basement where he is held during his ransom ordeal – “broken chairs, a tumbled mattress” (83) – only intensifies the squalor and fear, and they appear as “horrible monsters” (84). In Italy, with Barrett and Browning more interested in each other and then in their new child to pay him much attention, he retreats regularly to the shelter of some looming table or cabinet. Finally free to run wild, his interest in sublime nature, unpaved and unfenced, is limited, as is the supply of such places; the countryside he finds on a return visit to England is “strictly preserved”, (141) pet nature. Ignored in London, he sulks “for hours under the lodging-house chiffonier,” (139) while for the first weeks of its life Barrett’s baby, a “horrid thing”, a “live animal” that bleats and waves like some alien spawn, sends him running in a transport of disgust for “a shadowy sofa or a dark corner.” (126) His favorite place in the Florence market is “under the shadow of [a] great basket” (157), and in the final chapter of the book, his exploits with female dogs behind him, he is discovered lying asleep, as the narrator provocatively describes it, “between the bare legs of an ordinary drawing-room table.” (149) The solace of this last refuge – refuge and lover of a sort, it would seem – is interrupted by Barrett’s presence, but her interest is in the table, not in Flush.

In her own relationship to her objects, Barrett is at first not unlike Flush’s; when they meet, she is arguably simply a step ahead of him, already conversant and to some degree self-identified with the contents of the Wimpole Street bedroom. Her status as an invalid keeps her confined furniture-like to the room even more surely than Flush’s love for her keeps him there; she is “chained to the sofa” (35) and seems at times to merge with it, to make it a kind of extension of her body to which Flush is denied access when he misbehaves. She is not without allies among her things, however – what mobility she does have is granted to her by the “bath-chair” (77), though its range, the distance it can “trundle” (77) along Wimpole Street, keeps her close to home and ignorant, until her relationship with Robert Browning seems to engender a sharp rise in her energy, of the immiseration that festers a few streets away from her. The busts, the blind, the sofa – these are peers of a sort to her, and she seems perhaps even to suffer from the paralysis that Shell associates with concepts of universal kinship: everyone she knows and sees regularly is a relative or close enough, and there is no prospect for marriage or escape. She is unable even to eat, as if too much of a thing herself to consume others. What she needs is something along the lines of the Beauty and the Beast narrative that Shell suggests: the man-animal Beast in this folktale, as glossed by Shell, is a “transitional object between parental and spousal love”[6], the intraspecies but exogamous blended being that allows Beauty to escape incest and bestiality in marriage. Human endogamy combines in a kind of arithmetical canceling with bestial exogamy “to make a human exogamy.”[7]

Woolf seems at first to present Flush as a possible candidate for Beast to Barrett’s Beauty. He comforts the weeping Barrett in the form of Pan, animal-god – older parallels to the Beauty and the Beast story, Shell claims, include the Psyche-Cupid myth of the woman who marries a concealed deity – but her ultimate liberation from the tyrannical father and brothers, her exogamous human marriage, has little to do with Flush. Flush is, needless to say, never magically made human; he seems in fact to become more thing-like to Barrett after her marriage, when, as time goes on and she acquires greater agency and vitality, she proves to have less and less interest in him. The notice he warrants from her is born of a status-conscious wish to not see him fall into disrepair – in Italy, it is his old enemy Browning takes action to decisively treat Flush’s fleas, and only after he hears passersby murmuring about the mangy state of Flush’s coat – and in the final years of his life Barrett largely ignores him in favor of, strikingly, her furniture, which has become not just ally or tool but object of fascination in itself with the nineteenth-century Spiritualist vogue. Flush seems to have proved a transitional object, but the syllogism is a different one, though the formula of overlapping hybrids is not unlike Shell’s: animal-thing and animal-god, he is a kind of furry prototype of the possessed table.[8] Having loved him, Barrett has little trouble losing the animal and leaping to the thing-god, the idol to whose alleged raps and shudders she ascribes intelligence, precognition, transcendent communicative ability. When Woolf quotes Barrett’s own writings, describing the séance fad – “…[P]eople are ‘serving tables’…everywhere. When people gather round a table it isn’t to play whist.” (151) – “serving” resonates doubly, answering to Barrett’s idiomatic meaning – tables are offered as entertainment to guests – but suggesting unavoidably a human submission to the furniture, absurd enthrallment by it and to it. More surprising than a table’s ability to correctly convey the age of Barrett’s child is the idea that Barrett would have to depend on a table for such information about her own son, or that such a pedestrian revelation could inspire any sense of the numinous.

Flush, despite his complicity with furniture and things, is unmoved by the moving table, and herein lies the paradoxical power of his semi-reification. He knows furniture well; his relationship with it is one of peer with peer, almost-kind with almost-kind, and his interactions with it are businesslike, utilitarian, never subservient. Familiar with the physics of tables from his long association with them, he is quick to suss out a party trick, and has no need to supply supernatural explanations: “True, the table was standing on one leg, but so tables will if you lean hard on one side. He had upset tables himself and been well scolded for it.” (153-154) Talk of a spirit world only irritates Flush: while he can appreciate the material use, however unfulfilled, of a prayer on his behalf from the Barrett Browning child for the regrowth of his flea-sacrificed fur, the “prayer” of questionable Barrett Browning friends over “a piece of apparently solid mahogany” (155) baffles and bothers him, and he is gutted by Barrett’s resultant inattention to him, by her attempts to see a world that he knows doesn’t exist:

…far worse than any antics, was the look on Mrs. Browning’s face when she gazed out of the window as if she were seeing something that was wonderful when there was nothing. (156)

In an ostensibly light novel—certainly a playful one—there is perhaps no graver line. Flush is, of course, wounded by Barrett’s failure to notice him when he stands in front of her in these moments, but her utter conviction, her rapturous watch for the nothing that she takes for thing, inspires in him a horror far beyond jealous petulance.

Flush’s existence as hybrid animal-thing keeps him from Barrett’s mistake; he will never confuse the material with any kind of supernatural. His death, when it comes in Barrett’s distracted presence, is matter-of-fact and unweepy for him and for his narrator, though Barrett herself is shocked. What for her is an “extraordinary change” (161) is in fact nothing so sharp or drastic. He is silent, the narrator says, but this is no great change for an unspeaking animal, and the shift of states, alive to dead, doesn’t even warrant two separate sentences: “He had been alive; he was now dead. That was all.” The death is a culmination, a completed reification into body still as the table beside it. To be part human and part thing is ultimately to confound and smudge, if not to leap, the ultimate bound between living and nonliving.

Works Cited:

Shell, Marc. “The Family Pet”. Representations 15, Summer 1986, Regents of the University of California.

Woolf, Virginia. Flush. New York: Harcourt, 1967.

[1] Shell, 129.

[2] Shell, 142.

[3] Shell, 122.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Op. cit. 1

[6] Shell, 129.

[7] ibid

[8] The presence in the 1991 Disney adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast story of a number of palace animals and servants in the Beast’s employ who are transfigured into sentient furnishings – a candelabra, a wardrobe, a dog-cum-footrest – is perhaps another expression of this companion being-thing hybridity alongside animal-human blends, and even construable as a comment on the reification of service-industry personnel.

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