Beneath the Semblance of the Thing: Meat-Eating and the Absent Referent in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and ‘The Waves’

2 October 2020

Catherine Dent, Durham University

When we consume meat, we enact what Erin E. Edwards (Miami University) calls ‘the eating encounter between humans and animals’.During this ‘encounter’, the nonhuman body is assimilated – piecemeal – within the bounded human form. So often overlooked at the point of incorporation via ingestion, however, are the violent processes by which animals are killed for human consumption.

This obfuscation of nonhuman bodies is the process by which animals become what Carol J. Adams calls meat’s ‘absent referents’.According to Adams’s theoretical structure, the act of meat-eating disincarnates once-living animals, robbing them of their individuality. In her seminal work The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990), Adams delineates three distinct ways by which nonhuman bodies become absent referents, of which this article will focus on the first two. Firstly, Adams explains that, in a literal sense, animals are made absent ‘because they are dead.’Discursively, animals become absent through language: ‘we no longer talk about baby animals but about veal or lamb.’Finally, animals are made absent when meat is used as a metaphor for describing human experience, thus elevating ‘its meaning […] to a “higher” or more imaginative function’, such as in the phrase ‘feeling like a piece of meat’.5

In light of these observations, Woolf’s depiction of Lady Bruton’s lunch party in Mrs Dalloway (1925) provides a literary template for the linguistic obfuscation of the animal body:

And so there began a soundless and exquisite passing to and fro through swing doors of aproned, white-capped maids, […] adepts in a mystery or grand deception practiced by hostesses in Mayfair from one-thirty to two, when, with a wave of the hand, the traffic ceases, and there rises instead this profound illusion in the first place about the food – how it is not paid for; and then the little table spreads itself voluntarily with glass and silver, little mats, saucers of red fruit; films of brown cream mask turbot; in casseroles severed chickens swim; […] and with the wine and the coffee (not paid for) rise jocund visions before musing eyes; gently speculative eyes […].6

Somewhat paradoxically, Woolf flaunts the obfuscation of the animal body in the ‘eating encounter’ by styling the lunch party as an ‘illusion’, ‘a mystery or grand deception’. The use of sauces and ‘films of brown cream’ literally ‘mask’ the animal body, disguising its flavour as well as its visual appearance, so as to facilitate the ontologisation of animals as meat. Thus the reader can see what Viktor Shklovsky calls ‘the automatism of perception’ at work here: the ‘musing eyes; gently speculative eyes’ of Lady Bruton’s guests, it would seem, see nothing.7

Arguably, it is unsurprising that the characters in Mrs Dalloway should fail to perceive the absent referent, ‘the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing’.With the notable exception of Susan in The Waves (1931), Daniel Albright’s contention that ‘one rarely encounters a major character in a novel by […] Woolf who would feel comfortable milking a cow’ bears scrutiny.9 Elizabeth Dalloway, for instance, considers her career options: ‘She liked people who were ill. […] So she might be a doctor. She might be a farmer. Animals are often ill.’10 Woolf gently pokes fun at Elizabeth, the daughter of a socialite mother and a Conservative politician father, who plans to base her professional satisfaction on failing livestock. Her plans are doubly misinformed and misleading, however, as Woolf implies that Elizabeth sees the role of a farmer as purely pastoral, with no hint that she understands the farmer’s role in meat supply. For Elizabeth, and indeed for most people in the twentieth century, meat-eating constituted their most frequent form of interaction with animals bred as livestock, and this interaction is filtered through the structure of the absent referent.

Through the disconcerting image of ‘severed chickens swim[ming]’ ‘in casseroles’, however, Woolf hints at the otherwise obscured violence underpinning Lady Bruton’s genteel lunch party. Although on first reading Woolf seems to be emulating the Mayfair hostesses and practicing ‘a mystery of grand deception’ on the reader, the image of ‘severed chickens’ counterbalances a narrative in which the transformative process of incorporation via ingestion obfuscates the ontologisation of nonhuman bodies as meat. This image simultaneously reminds us of the individual, once-living animal bodies, and the inherent violence of meat-eating: ‘swim[ming]’ implies agency, of which the ‘severed chickens’ have been violently deprived.

Perhaps the most notable example in Woolf’s oeuvre of the absent referent being explicitly made visible to a character, however, is to be found in The Waves, as Bernard realises:

Disorder, sordidity and corruption surround us. We have been taking into our mouths the bodies of dead birds. It is with these greasy crumbs, slobbered over napkins, and little corpses that we have to build.11

This revelation causes Bernard to remark upon the ‘dirty tricks’ life ‘plays us’, implying that he sees through the ‘illusion’ so brilliantly wrought in Woolf’s earlier novel.12 Notably, upon perceiving the skeletal remains of ‘the bodies of dead birds’, Bernard falls into step with Adams’s preference for the term ‘corpse’.13 Indeed, the word ‘meat’ is conspicuously absent from this passage.

Woolf’s novels, of course, cannot be reduced to mouthpieces for ethical vegetarianism. Certainly, there is nothing in The Waves to support the interpretation that Bernard’s epiphany heralds his conversion to vegetarianism, coming as it does in the novel’s final section. Nor, it should be noted, was Woolf herself an ethical vegetarian, though her relationship with meat-eating was by no means uncomplicated. Although she briefly experimented with ‘Neo-Paganism’, which advocated a plant-based diet and, like a young Clarissa Parry, was inspired by Shelleyan principles, and although Vanessa Bell reprimands her sister in a letter of December 1904 for eating “no meat”, Woolf nonetheless writes with delight to Vita Sackville-West of cooking veal cutlets on her new oil stove, and she assumes in ‘Three Guineas’ that ‘fresh books are as essential for the critic’s mind as fresh meat for his body.’14 Nonetheless, it is certainly true that, for Bernard, ‘[l]ife conflicts with something that is not life’, and the ethical implications of this conflict promise to liberate the nonhuman body from the theoretical structure of the absent referent.15.


  1. Erin E. Edwards, The Modernist Corpse: Posthumanism and the Posthumous(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), p. 189.
  2. Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory(New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), p. 21.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Virginia Woolf, MrsDalloway, ed. David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 88-89.
  7. Viktor Shklovsky, ‘Art as technique’, Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (New York: Longman, 1988), pp. 16-30 (p. 21).
  8. Virginia Woolf, TheWaves(London: Vintage, 2004), p. 107.
  9. Daniel Albright, ‘Yeats and Modernism’, The Cambridge Companion to W. B. Yeats, ed. Marjorie Howes and John Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 59-76 (p. 65).
  10. Woolf,MrsDalloway, p. 115.
  11. Woolf,TheWaves, p. 196.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Cf. Carol J. Adams, Neither Man Nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals(London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), p. 7.
  14. Hermione Lee, VirginiaWoolf(London: Vintage, 1997), p. 293; Letter from Vanessa Bell, as quoted by Allie Glenny, RavenousIdentity: Eating and Eating Distress in the Life and Work of Virginia Woolf(New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999), p. 23; Virginia Woolf, ‘To Vita Sackville-West’, A Reflection of the Other Person:The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4, ed. Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann (London: The Hogarth Press, 1978), p. 93 [26 September 1929]; Virginia Woolf, ‘Three Guineas’, A Room of One’s Ownand ThreeGuineas, ed. Michèle Barrett (London: Penguin, 2019), pp. 117-323 (p. 309).
  15. Virginia Woolf, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, A Room of One’s Own andThree Guineas, ed. Michèle Barrett (London: Penguin, 2019), pp. 3-103 (p. 65).

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