Mrs. Dalloway’s Transcendentalism
After Septimus’ suicide, we encounter Peter Walsh hearing the “light, high bell of the ambulance,” and deeming it, in his mind, “one of the triumphs of civilization” (151). He ponders the “efficiency, organization, the communal spirit,” of the city, thereby allowing the ambulance to pick up the necessary individual and maneuver through the streets as carriages and carts move out of the way. He describes the moment as one, “in which things came together; this ambulance; and life and death” (151). The moment however, ties more ends together for the purpose of the book than it does for Peter. Peter’s recollections of traveling with Clarissa on the omnibus that lead to the summation of Clarissa’s transcendental theory of interconnectivity serve both as an immediate example of the theory in action as demonstrated by his thought progression, and as a thesis for the entire novel and underlying structure. Before examining the passage from the beginning, I would like to introduce Clarissa’s “transcendental theory:” “since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death” (153). In other words, the influence of our unseen, or thoughts and attitudes, can live on through other beings and places. This especially is significant in the context of the novel as a whole due to Septimus’ relative removal from the rest of the characters, yet significant effect on Clarissa at the party later that day. I would also like to point out that this theory suggests a connection between apparition and the unseen part, both possibly affecting each other. Peter demonstrates an awareness of his unseen development as attached to his experience living in India throughout his thought development after hearing the ambulance. When talking about London, Peter thinks, “That was civilization. It struck him coming back from the East” (151). This suggests that Peter’s view on London has changed due to his experience in India, yet it chooses, at this outward (for Peter) moment, to make itself apparent. Peter once again references India, more directly, as he says that, “it had been his undoing-this susceptibility-in Anglo-Indian society; not weeping at the right time, or laughing either” (151-52). This suggests a reversal in India’s role. Here, his failure in India is more the apparition and his emotional susceptibility is the underlying and unseen part of him. This is a matter of finding the starting point in the chain of these events. To explain, the apparition only exists in the present moment and is shortly converted into the unseen after the moment passes. The apparition is then manifested in the form of a psychological effect on the person. Thus it is no longer an apparition, but rather an unseen consequence. Each time such a conversion occurs, another part of the person’s experience hardens itself into his or her psychological makeup. He repeats these thoughts almost exactly the same at the end of the same paragraph (“It had been his undoing in Anglo-Indian society-this susceptibility” (152)) establishing Peter’s consciousness of his emotional faults that led to his downfall in India. This emotional fault is described by Peter as “susceptibility,” specifically to his emotions, leaving him vulnerable. However, he does not realize that his susceptibility extends further than his inability to properly control his emotions in India. As the transcendental theory would have it, Peter’s emotional problems would not arise on their own and would be caused by previous experience. What then, was the cause of Peter’s susceptibility? Peter’s emotional susceptibility resulted from Clarissa’s unseen effects on him as he remembered them. When talking about his current emotional state thinking deeply about life, death and the ambulance siren, Peter thinks, “that visit to Clarissa had exhausted him with its heat, its intensity and the drip, drip of one impression after another down into that cellar where they stood, deep, dark and no one would ever know” (152). Peter’s perception of his meeting with Clarissa was of one that no one would find out about even though he felt as if he had been “left bare” (152). However, fitting in with the theory, Clarissa’s effects did stretch “far and wide,” as they dug up past memories, bringing subdued feelings to the surface of Peter’s consciousness. Clarissa’s stripping Peter of his emotional control stems deeper than just his meeting with her, as seen in his memory of Clarissa riding with him on the omnibus, including his recollection of her theory. Peter buys into it saying, “Brief, broken, often painful as their actual meetings had been…the effect of them on his life was immeasurable. There was a mystery about it” (153). Clarissa is clearly the underlying influence for Peter. He connects his susceptibility in India to his experiences with Clarissa, as well as the comfort of the sirens and civilization with her. However, this comfort is misleading and thus has a negative affect on Peter. He thinks that it was bad in India and better in England, as apparent in his views on the ambulance and modernity. However, he fails to realize Clarissa’s damaging effects on him in favor of a slim chance for lover with her. He is blinded by Clarissa’s influence and trapped in a vicious chain of his present apparitions unearthing past experiences, translating into a damaged psyche. The present apparitions become past experiences in due time and in this manner, I refer to it as an everlasting chain. Septimus seems to be the only character completely removed from the rest with an influence that might suggest Clarissa’s theory directly, as he attaches himself in some way to Clarissa’s mindset. Why can this passage, with Peter Walsh at the helm of this portion of the narrative, become subject to interpretation through this same theory? I argue that Septimus is a large enough part of the story to influence Peter. Even though Peter is unaware of his connection to Septimus, the sound of the ambulance comes from that of the one that went to pick up Septimus after he committed suicide. His influence, small as it is in the apparition category, leads to a manifestation of previously unseen parts of Peter’s experiences and character through his thoughts.Even now, why should we accept this theory of unseen influence as a structure for the entire novel? I argue that the sentence structure most commonly used in the novel accounts for this theory. The sentences are transcendental in themselves, each statement between commas speaking to two categories: apparitions and the unseen self. For example, “But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere” (152). There are two parts to this sentence. First is the physical bus ride, going up the street, sitting in the bus, tapping on the seat. This is an apparition. The second part of the sentence is the metaphysical sense of Clarissa feeling herself everywhere and the explanation of that. This is just one example of an almost archetypal sentence structure used in Mrs. Dalloway. Apparitions and the unseen are weaved together throughout the narrative and even as deep as the sentence structure to show the layered nature and effect of both parts of the self on the individual and his or her experiences.
Mrs. Dalloway: The Self-characterization and Introspection of Virginia Woolf
It is neither unique nor uncommon for great authors to weave themselves into the fabric of their own works; it is a technique that adds realism and believability to otherwise complex fictional characters. D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are examples of this occurrence in which the main character is a literarily-conscious version of the author himself. Oftentimes authors will imbue their characters with aspects of their own personalities because such familiar characteristics offer depth and insight to a figure’s development. However, it is distinctly less common for an author to create a complete portrait of herself spread among several characters, rather than taking on the role of a single central figure. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf accomplishes such a feat by separating her own personality among the two characters Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith. These counterparts serve to illustrate the devastating polar extremes caused by Woolf’s manic depression, yet still remain faithful to the less than 24-hour timeframe of the story. The character of Mrs. Dalloway was not new at the time that she wrote the novel. Both Clarissa and her husband Richard had been introduced in The Voyage Out, published after Woolf’s third mental breakdown, and about the same time as the declaration of World War I (Cameron, About Mrs. Dalloway par. 2 & Bloom par. 9). Rather than the sympathetic, deeper and developed characters portrayed in her later novel, the Dalloways were characterized as a pretentious and overbearing husband and his submissive, superficial wife, originally modeled by Woolf’s socialite friend Kitty Maxse. However, after the war ended, Woolf published a series of short stories which explored Clarissa’s character, like Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street, molding her into a more introspective woman with hints of hidden depressed tendencies (Cameron, About Mrs. Dalloway par. 2-3). Thus, it appears that Woolf’s own mental instability and the end of the war played key roles in the development of Mrs. Dalloway’s character and Woolf’s decision to take her on as part of her own persona. From the very first page, we are thrown into the action of the day – Clarissa stating she will buy flowers and fretting over her party. Both actions are seemingly superficial, but with the first sound of the morning, the unhinging of a door, she is drawn almost reclusively into memory of happy times in her youth (Woolf 3). This behavior is repeated throughout the novel; over the course of 24 hours, she can focus on little but her party, despite being frequently and severely interrupted by her own mind’s recollections and her reflections on them. While it may seem that this behavior is merely “normal focus” over the day long period, Clarissa’s intense concentration is a behavior known as hypomania, one of the manic extremes of bipolar disorder, and one that Clarissa and Woolf share (Purse, par. 5-6). Woolf herself was known to work on literature for unremitting day-long periods (Ingram par. 16). These hypomanic episodes are often accompanied by feelings of extra creativity and innovation, confidence, and the ability to shirk off major and minor problems that would otherwise be crippling during depressive periods (Purse, par. 5-6). While Woolf used her hypomanic periods to write, Clarissa uses hers to plan for the evening’s events. We see her carefully and deliberately arrange the world around her for the festivities. After a moment of feeling rejected over her lack of an invitation to Lady Bruton’s luncheon, she isolates herself and then decides to mend her dress, an indirect instance of creativity employed to cope with a feeling that might otherwise lead to a devastating episode (Woolf 29-30). Nevertheless, depressive tendencies are never completely absent during these periods, and sufferers may still experience feelings of helplessness, regret, and uninhibited behavior, all of which Clarissa displays (Purse, par. 5-6). We learn that she no longer takes pleasure in the things she once enjoyed. She is also profoundly lacking in the confidence of her own education, yet she is much more capable than she believes: “How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge FrÃ¤ulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed (Woolf 8).” Similarly, Woolf was an extremely bright child who benefited from her distinguished father’s library, but she herself was denied the education provided to her brothers (Cameron, About Virginia Woolf par. 1). We begin to see more depth in the feelings that Clarissa experiences after she isolates herself from the world in the “tower” of her remote bedroom (Woolf 31). We learn that the relationship between her and her husband is not one of passion or physical romance, much like the reported relationship between Virginia Woolf and her husband. There is certainly love and cooperation, but not a passionate romance. Clarissa is ill and sleeps alone, but has no cold feelings toward him. She sometimes feels distanced by his conservative politics and social status, but there is nevertheless a type of partnership. Moreover, her need to temporarily rest that afternoon is partially due to a heart condition, which was, according to Woolf’s diaries, one shared by the author who suffered from palpitations and migraines, among other maladies (Ingram par. 8). In her room, Clarissa instead recalls a time in her past when her childhood friend Sally Seton kissed her, and it was the first (and possibly only) moment of passionate physical contact for Clarissa. She thinks back, “The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feeling for a man (Woolf 34)” and “Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! (Woolf 35)” This is clearly a parallel between the protagonist and Woolf, who may have had romantic relationships with Madge Vaughan (on whom Sally is based) and later her publisher Vita Sackville-West (Cameron, About Mrs. Dalloway par. 3 & Bloom par. 17). Clarissa is drawn to the brash and free-spirited Sally, and given that Clarissa and Virginia both grew up in Victorian England, such a relationship was taboo, and thus may be (within that social context) categorized as impulsive, manic-depressive behavior (Purse par. 7). But Clarissa offers only partial insight sum psyche of the author. She is offset by Septimus Warren Smith, who also undergoes dramatic changes in the post-war era. Septimus, like Woolf, held great appreciation for literary works. Prior to the war he was a scholar of Shakespeare and other classics (as we find through his and Rezia’s memories), and represents the intellectual side of the author before being destroyed by mental illness (Woolf 85). When he goes to war, however, he is faced with the death of his dear friend, Evans, and believes he simply does not feel the pain of the loss. In reality, he has lost his ability to feel anything, and begins his decent into madness. Similarly, the death of Julia Stephen marked Woolf’s first mental breakdown, followed by another breakdown and suicide attempt (by jumping out a window) after the death of her father (Bloom par. 2 & 5). Though Septimus only makes a few appearances in the book, his role is crucial to filling in the darker depressive and insane spaces of Woolf’s personality that are not covered by the hypomanic and functional side portrayed by Clarissa Dalloway. The first thoughts of his wife Rezia are that of a deeply saddened and overwhelmingly frustrated and embarrassed woman whose husband has been taken away by madness. She steps away from her delusional husband who is babbling to the dead Evans, and becomes bitter. “Lucrezia Warren Smith was saying to herself, It’s wicked; why should I suffer? she was asking, as she walked down the broad path. No; I can’t stand it any longer, she was saying, having left Septimus, who wasn’t Septimus any longer, to say hard, cruel, wicked things, to talk to himself, to talk to a dead man, on the seat over there (Woolf 65).” The feelings projected on Rezia are most likely the same feelings that Woolf believed her husband may have experienced when she suffered a breakdown (characterized too, by depression, delusions and hearing voices) shortly after their marriage (Bloom par. 9). Much of the Warren Smith marriage in fact parallels that of Woolf and her husband, beginning with both Septimus and Woolf marrying out of a need for stability during wartime. Clearly the war played a central role in both marriages: Septimus married an Italian woman (not his love) in order to restore normalcy to his life, whereas Woolf and her husband married shortly before the war, but were deeply affected by it and later swore a suicide pact prior to WWII that they would both kill themselves if the Nazis invaded England (Cameron, About Virginia Woolf par. 6). Like Septimus, Woolf also suffered from disturbing mental neuroses, none of which were properly diagnosed by any doctors (Ingram par. 8). In the novel, the doctors tell Rezia that there is no diagnosis for his behavior – that he simply needs to be kept busy. Faithfully, Rezia does just that by taking him for walks, and trying to keep his mind and body occupied despite her desperate desire to get out of the marriage. Like Rezia, Woolf’s husband tried to deal with his wife’s madness in the same way her doctors recommended, and in 1917, they purchased a second-hand printing press and started the Hogarth Press (Bloom par. 10). Like her literary counterparts though, the press only temporarily offered relief, and generally fostered manic episodes of mental occupation followed by intense depressive swings, much like Septimus’s final episode prior to his death. It is this final episode that begins to draw Clarissa and Septimus together. In an instant of clarity, Septimus becomes functional. Like the more characteristic behavior of Clarissa, he displays joyful, creative abilities: “For the first time for days he was speaking as he used to do! … He took it out of her hands. He said it was an organ grinder’s monkey’s hat. How it rejoiced her that! Not for weeks had they laughed like this together, poking fun privately like married people (Woolf 143).” Such an episode is described as the old, normal self for Septimus, though shortly thereafter he jumps out a window to his death. Even though he did not want to die, his “normal” or functional period was obviously followed by a state of decreased inhibition. Thus, this episode may be another manifestation of the manic state, denoted by temporary clarity and elation, shared by the author (Purse, par. 7). What is particularly important to both Septimus’s and Clarissa’s characters is that Woolf had originally planned to have Clarissa commit suicide in the end, but decided instead to create another character, Septimus Warren Smith to take the fall instead (Cameron, About Mrs. Dalloway par. 4). This splitting is significant because it serves to allow the story to believably take place over the course of 24 hours, as well as give Woolf an opportunity to have the central character reflect upon the death and learn from it, rather than simply experience it. Septimus realizes there is no escape from madness; the doctors cannot help him, and all that is left is a future of personal torture and agonizing pain for his beloved caretaker, his wife. He pauses at the windowsill, “But he would wait until the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good (Woolf 149).” Thus Septimus’s end is not meant to be seen as a release, but as the only unfortunate solution to incurable madness. When Woolf herself finally ended her life, she wrote in her suicide note:I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness… I can’t fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work (Grohol par. 4).For Clarissa, the final pages of the story allow her to realize the importance of her parties through the loss of life. Her parties are not superficial socialite activities, but something much deeper, something the author herself wishes to have: togetherness. Even in his most deranged states, Septimus cries out for communion and companionship: “Communication is health; communication is happiness, communication – he muttered (Woolf 93).” Woolf wrote in her diaries that insanity was complete and total isolation (Grohol par. 2), and isolation, according to her essay Death of a Moth, was death. Consequently, Clarissa’s parties represent the bringing together of lives, thus creating life through togetherness and combating the isolation of insanity. In one sense, Woolf departs from both Septimus and Clarissa at this point, because the period between when Septimus commits suicide and when Clarissa realizes the importance of her social gatherings is a fork in the road for Woolf. One character lives and accepts the deeper hidden pain in her life, while the other ends it all because there is no alternative escape from the madness. Works CitedWoolf, Virginia S. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1981″What is Bipolar Disorder?” About.com. 2005. About by Yahoo!. 23 April 2005 < http://bipolar.about.com/cs/bpbasics/a/0210_whatisbp.htm>Peterson, Cameron. “ClassicNotes: About Mrs. Dalloway” GradeSaver.com. 4 July 2001. GradeSaver. 23 April 2005
Sound and Time in Mrs. Dalloway
Elsewhere some Hindus were drumming – he knew they were Hindus, because the rhythm was uncongenial to him. (E.M. Forster, A Passage to India)While writing and revising Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf was corresponding with E.M. Forster, who was working on A Passage to India. In September of 1921, she records in her diary: “A letter from Morgan [Forster] this morning. He seems as critical of the East as of Bloomsbury, & sits dressed in a turban watching his Prince dance” (Diary 2.138). His novel came out well before she finished hers; she read it and noted, “Morgan is too restrained in his new book perhaps” (Diary 2.304). A note of the Anglo-Indian society that dominates A Passage to India resonates in Mrs. Dalloway’s background, sounded in part by the returning Indian traveler, Peter Walsh, but also heard and overheard in conversations and oblique references scattered throughout the narrative. Reinforcing its literal presence in the novel, an echo of India appears in Mrs. Dalloway’s narrative rhythms. Like the intricate percussion of the Indian tabla, the fabric of Woolf’s narrative comprises a polyrhythmic texture that subtly undermines London’s booming metronome: Big Ben.The beautiful and complex narrative of Mrs. Dalloway seems to defy readers’ powers of description. David Dowling’s Mapping Streams of Consciousness promotes a sense that one must “reconstruct” the text in order to understand it. In a section entitled “A Reading,” Dowling dissects the novel into neat structural packages so the reader can easily study its anatomy. He includes maps of London showing various characters’ movements and intersections, an hourly chronology of the day of Clarissa’s party, character sketches condensed from details scattered in the text, and, in the appendix, a kind of “miniature concordance” that provides counts for some 32 words (“India” appears 25 times).Other studies of Mrs. Dalloway are less detailed but serve as well to illustrate the difficulties of describing its narrative patterns. In “Metaphor, Metonymy, and Ideology: Language and Perception in Mrs. Dalloway,”: Teresa L. Ebert discusses binary structures – “counterpointing… visions” (Ebert 152) – in the novel’s language. Building on Nancy Topping Bazin’s Virginia Woolf and the Androgynous Vision, she explores how female and male polarities in the text are resolved in images of androgyny. Instead of metaphor and metonymy, Caroline Webb examines the “anti-allegorical” nature of the text (Webb 279). In “Life After Death: The Allegorical Progress of Mrs. Dalloway,” she argues that the narrative invites us to look for a “hidden story,” but ultimately frustrates our expectations (Webb 279). Focusing on the narrator as a specifically created presence in the work, Sharon Stockton refers to classical physics and phenomenology to show Woolf “deconstructing the conventions of authoritarian representation” (Stockton, “Turbulence in the Text: Narrative Complexity in Mrs. Dalloway” 51).The novel’s narrative has also been described specifically in terms of its metrical effects. In “‘On the Floor of the Mind’: Sentence Shape and Rhythm in Mrs. Dalloway,” Elizabeth Dodd explicates the poetic qualities of Woolf’s prose. She not only points out relationships between sentence rhythm and specific characters’ thought patterns, she also shows that Woolf turned to poetry for literary inspiration while revising Mrs. Dalloway. Calling the reader’s attention to Woolf’s June 21, 1924 diary entry – the same one in which Woolf commented on Forster’s A Passage to India (above) – Dodd shows the extent to which poetry was on the writer’s mind: “I think I grow more & more poetic” (Diary 2.304).Undoubtedly, poetry does inform Woolf’s work, and Dodd’s argument to that effect is convincing. While the sentences in Mrs. Dalloway are metrical, however, “poetic” alone does not encompass the full rhythmic force of the narrative. Ebert’s term “counterpoint” and Stockton’s metaphor of “turbulence” both evoke kinds of rhythmic structures as well, but in very different contexts. Indeed, Woolf consciously draws influence across diverse media in her quest to “[throw] away the method… in use at the moment” (Woolf, “Character in Fiction” 432). Robin Gail Schulze points to Woolf’s use of tonal music to show how she breaks with literary tradition in her novels, but she concludes that “Mrs. Dalloway, by Woolf’s definition, remains a conventional novel” (Schulze 8). I suggest, however, that Mrs. Dalloway’s chronology, the poetic meter of its sentences, its turbulence and counterpoint, are all vectors in the intricate matrix of its polyrhythmic structure.Borrowed from the field of musicology, “polyrhythmic” describes a percussive structure unfamiliar to many Westerners. Because it is not based on regular repetitive patterns marked by even measures, polyrhythmic percussion may sound chaotic to the unaccustomed ear. These characteristically non-Western rhythms are somewhat analogous to several different metronomes, each generating a different pattern based on a different downbeat. The rhythms generated by these metronomes would bear mathematic relationships to each other; the downbeats will intersect in various combinations and, at long but regular intervals, all metronomes will sound their downbeats simultaneously. In Drumming at the Edge of Magic, percussionist Mickey Hart calls this sudden unity of seemingly chaotic structures “The One.”Multiple metronomes, though, only superficially capture the complexity of Indian and other non-Western percussion traditions. Indian classical music is based on rhythmic variation and elasticity of tempo almost never heard in Western music. The tabla, one of the most common Indian percussion instruments, consists of two small drums of different size, shape, material, pitch, and timbre. The drummer uses one hand for each drum and all the fingers on both hands to produce almost minimal, often rippling and intricate, accompaniment to a droning sitar or reed-like human voice. Forster describes the effect of this kind of percussion in A Passage to India:Godbole… said a word to the drummer, who broke rhythm, made a thick little blur of sound, and produced a new rhythm. This was more exciting, the inner images it evoked more definite, and the singers’ expressions became fatuous and languid. They loved all men, the whole universe, and scraps of their past, tiny splinters of detail, emerged for a moment to melt into the universal warmth. (286)Whether or not she used Forster as a conscious model, I think this distinctively polyrhythmic music provides a surprisingly descriptive analogy for Virginia Woolf’s narrative technique in Mrs. Dalloway.The swirling, divergent, colliding, sometimes intersecting and synchronous rhythms of Mrs. Dalloway manifest themselves in the text in various ways and on numerous levels. Rhythm emerges in the novel in literal prose references to percussive sounds, in the sound of the words themselves, and in the overarching narrative structure of the work – its pace, its pauses and plunges, its movement through time, and its movement through and around characters’ minds. Like Forster’s drummer, Woolf’s prose breaks rhythm, makes thick little blurs of sound, and produces a new rhythm; it evokes inner images; and it ultimately melts scraps of the past and tiny splinters of detail into a final unified downbeat of “universal warmth.”One of the elemental components in the polyrhythmic voicing of Mrs. Dalloway is the percussive sound-scape Woolf creates in the novel’s background. As Clarissa crosses the street at the beginning of the novel, she plunges into a cacophony punctuated by the percussive tramping and jingling of people and traffic:In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June. (4)As Clarissa continues through town to the flower shop, the din begins to shape itself into rhythm. When an enigmatically important-looking car appears, its effects ripple and vibrate and echo through the street:The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street. …When the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional. …In a public house in a back street a Colonial insulted the House of Windsor which led to words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy, which echoed strangely across the way. …For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound. (18)After the ripple crests to “a general shindy” and then dissipates, another important sound, which may subtly evoke Indian music, enters the scene. Above the rhythmic sounds of life drones “the strange high singing of some aeroplane” (4), “boring into the ears of all people in the mall” (18), like the drone of a sitar or chanter whom the tabla accompanies.A similar percussive “surface agitation” ripples throughout the novel in clicks, taps, flicks, and drips; we hear it in voices chattering, twigs cracking, and in pulses and thuds. Woolf gives us the cadence of Peter Walsh “speaking to himself rhythmically, in time with the flow of the sound” (48). Septimus Warren Smith experiences “thunder-claps of fear,” and remembers the sound of Rezia and her sisters making hats: “he… could hear them; they were rubbing wires among coloured beads in saucers. …Scissors were rapping on the table. …Still, scissors rapping, girls laughing” (87). The effect of these (and numerous other) sounds in the prose is subtle but significant. They not only add an important sensory dimension to the readers’ experience of the text, they give us percussive accents to reinforce the novel’s rhythmic pace.Complimenting these sounds in the prose are words and sentences that, if read aloud, convey a sense of rhythm and percussion. A passage that nicely illustrates both sound in the prose and the sound of the prose appears when Peter Walsh is walking to the park after leaving Clarissa’s house:A patter like the patter of leaves in a wood came from behind, and with it a rustling, regular thudding sound, which as it overtook him drummed his thoughts, strict in step, up Whitehall, without his doing. Boys in uniform, carrying guns, marched with their eyes ahead of them, marched, their arms stiff, and on their faces an expression like the letters of a legend written round the base of a statue praising duty, gratitude, fidelity, love of England. (51)The words “patter,” “rustling,” and “thudding” are onomatopoeic, simultaneously referring to and embodying sound, while “drummed” specifically evokes the percussive patterns that pervade the passage. Alliterative pairs of words, like “rustling regular,” “strict in step,” “Whitehall without,” and “written round,” and the triplet “like the letters of a legend” sound when spoken like strokes on the skin of the drum. Similar structures can be heard throughout the novel, especially in Septimus Smith’s hallucinations:The earth thrilled beneath him. Red flowers grew through his flesh; their stiff leaves rustled by his head. Music began clanging against the rocks up here. It is a motor horn down in the street, he muttered; but up here it cannoned from rock to rock, divided, met in shocks of sound which rose in smooth columns (that music should be visible was a discovery) and became an anthem, an anthem twined round now by a shepherd boy’s piping (That’s an old man playing a penny whistle by the public-house, he muttered) which, as the boy stood still came bubbling from his pipe. (68)The onomatopoeia and alliteration appear here as well, but the rhythm is noticeably different. Instead of the quick, crisp pattering of the passage above, Septimus’s has a slower and less regular tempo. The repetition of the “h” sound and the greater distance between some alliterative words contrasts with the military precision of Peter Walsh’s perceptions.Of course, these are not isolated passages in the text; they merely illustrate some ways Woolf infuses her prose with sonic elements that contribute to the novel’s overarching polyrhythmic structure. These important stylistic elements – this surface agitation – add texture to the fabric of the narrative. But the predominant rhythms in the novel follow a larger pattern. In a sense, Mrs. Dalloway’s disparate rhythmic voices follow closely the “Streams of Consciousness” David Dowling seeks to map (above). Each character in the novel has her or his own narrative rhythm. These rhythms emerge and retreat, diverge and intersect, approach chaos and then resolve. We could take the primary components of narrative rhythm to be time and space. Using Dowling’s map diagrams and chronological chart as guides (Dowling 51-57), we could follow the separate time/space rhythms of Septimus, Clarissa, Peter, Richard, and Elizabeth through the day of Clarissa’s party. Hence, we could reconstruct these elements of narrative and plot – these “splinters of detail” – in a way that would be hostile to the text. In a sense, we would insist that the tabla submit to the authority of a single metronome.Time and space are important metrical components in the text, but through elastic polyrhythmic tempos and voicings, Woolf shows they are subjective components, not rigid authoritarian constants. Like Forster’s description of the effects of ritual Indian drumming, Woolf shows us scraps of her characters’ pasts as real parts of the present moment – “this moment of June.” In A Passage to India the “new rhythm” brings memories and images together to form a spiritual “completeness” in the moment:Godbole… remembered an old woman he had met in Chandrapore days. Chance brought her into his mind while it was in this heated state, he did not select her, she happened to occur among the throng of soliciting images, a tiny splinter, and he impelled her by his spiritual force to that place where completeness can be found. Completeness, not reconstruction. (286)In Mrs. Dalloway the narrator does not merely describe these moments of completeness; she creates them for us. The narrative rhythm melts past and present together for Clarissa in the first paragraphs of the novel. As Clarissa steps into the street in front of her house, her past is suddenly with her:What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen… (3).In a manner that she will sustain throughout the novel, the narrator conveys memory and present action to us simultaneously and ambiguously. “Which she could hear now” refers, ostensibly, to the squeak of the hinges at Bourton in Clarissa’s memory. Yet “now” implies the moment of her plunge into the street, suggesting either a kind of reverie – as in, “I can almost hear it now…” – or that the doors through which she now plunges also squeak. The later phrase, “for a girl of eighteen as she then was” is similarly disorienting. It locates the time of Clarissa’s bursting open the windows of Bourton, but it also implies that, through her memory, she has become eighteen again. The “then” contrasts with the earlier “now,” but neither refers concretely to its own relative time.Where Forster tells his reader that the rhythm impelled Godbole to an experience of “completeness, not reconstruction,” Woolf’s narrator causes us to experience completeness of two times with Clarissa. Studying the passage, we may feel compelled to disentangle the threads of time in order to reconstruct chronological plot. Dowling reprints diagrams other readers have used to chart chronology in the novel – one builds pyramids labeled with algebraic letters and numbers to signify time frames and characters, another draws zig-zags connecting characters to each other (Dowling 71). But Dowling is forced to conclude, “despite the patterning in the novel, then, it remains essentially disorganized” (Dowling 73). If we try to hear the narrative with a Western ear, to mark off the measures and count out the beats, the novel will confound us. Whatever tools we use, our attempts to reconstruct will negate the sense of completeness the narrator’s rhythm impels us to.Clarissa’s plunge into the street and into the air of Bourton does, however, show a specific consciousness of the simultaneous time frames: the air at Bourton was “stiller than this, of course.” Rather than comparing the past to the present, Clarissa, through the narrator, compares the air at Bourton to “this.” Past and present are still contained simultaneously in the text, but their rhythms diverge briefly. As the passage continues into memory, we retain with Clarissa a vague consciousness of the present moment:…looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?” – was that it? – “I prefer men to cauliflowers” – was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace – Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July…(3-4).Within the memory narrative, Clarissa’s present emerges in the repeated “was that it?” and the past becomes muted, indefinite, speculative: “he must have said it…” The narrative recenters on the present as Clarrisa thinks of Peter, but it mirrors the past’s ambiguity: “one of these days, June or July.” As Dowling writes, “the text oscillates rhythmically between memories and this day in June” (73). Past and present compliment and complicate each other. The narrator gives us a thick little blur of sound and then resolves into a new rhythm.Of course, the rhythm of Clarissa’s plunge is not conveyed by memory and moment alone. The meter of the prose transmits what Elizabeth Dodd calls “a visceral rendition of an emotional and intellectual concern” (279). Like the meter of passages explicated above, the text here contains accents, repeated patterns, alliteration and assonance. Begining with an accented down beat – “What a Lark! What a plunge!” – the passage “squeaks” with the window, “flaps” like a wave, winds with smoke off the trees, rises and falls with the rooks. In its sound and in its pace, in its plunges and its pauses, this intermingling of past and present, this little blur of sound, establishes the polyrhythmic patterns that will wash over the reader throughout the novel. For Clarissa, the rhythm of the past at Bourton becomes as relevant to this moment of June as her preparations for her party.Similar to how it “oscillates rhythmically between memories and this day in June,” the text taps through and around Septimus’s hallucinations. When Rezia returns to his side in the park after taking a needed but brief rest from him, the narrative cadence passes from her to him. As it does, it moves from “real” detail to his fantastic improvisations on reality:Why, when she sat by him, did he start, frown at her, move away, and point at her hand, take her hand, look at it terrified? Was it that she had taken off her wedding ring? “My hand has grown so thin,” she said, “I have put it in my purse,” she told him.He dropped her hand. Their marriage was over, he thought, with agony, with relief. The rope was cut; he mounted; he was free, as it was decreed that he, Septimus, the lord of men, should be free; alone (since his wife had thrown away her wedding ring; since she had left him), he, Septimus, was alone, called forth in advance of the mass of men to hear the truth, to learn the meaning, which now at last… was to be given whole to… “To whom?” he asked aloud. (67, second elipses in original)As she passes into Septimus’s mind, the narrator blurs the distinction between herself and him. Grammatically, “their marriage was over” is the narrator’s third person comment; however, “he thought” attributes it to him. The narrator thus blends her rhythm with the character’s, only to diverge again with “he asked aloud.” Employed throughout the novel, this structure allows the text to “oscillate rhythmically” between “real” time – the chronological trajectory from Clarissa’s plunge into the street to the final moments of her party – and what Robin Gail Schulze calls “mind-time.” Schulze writes,During segments of mind-time, Woolf sets various time streams loose at once, either in the mind of one character, who retreats into internal soliloquy, collapsing past, present and future, or in the simultaneous perspectives given by several characters recording a single moment. The result of either technique is that plot time stands still. (Schulze 8)Through these retreats from the novel’s chronological trajectory, and through the attending metrical nuances of the language, Woolf achieves the elasticity of tempo and meter characteristic of polyrhythmic percussion.Time is not entirely subjective and elastic in this text, however. The novel does take place within a prescribed temporal context marked ominously by the booming of Big Ben: “First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles disolved in the air.” Schulze finds this chronology “inescapable,” and bases her conclusion that Mrs. Dalloway is finally a traditional novel largely on her reading of Big Ben’s authority in it (Schulze 8). In fact, the metronomic images of clocks in the novel do represent an almost over-powering rhythmic structure that imperils the non-Western polyrhythmic narrative force. The danger is such that Woolf titled early working drafts “The Hours.” I think, however, that the narrative ultimately subverts Big Ben’s bluster to the rhythms he threatens to quash; his metronomic authority is absorbed into and subsumed by a unified downbeat at the end of the novel that promises to launch into new polyrhythmic complexities.Woolf specifically inscribes Big Ben in the novel as a malevolent force. Immediately before Peter Walsh leaves Clarissa’s house, the clock strikes the half hour: “The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour stuck out between them with extraordinary vigour.” As Peter leaves, the clock can still be heard:”Peter! Peter!” cried Clarissa, following him out on to the landing. “My party to-night! Remember my party to-night!” She cried, having to raise her voice against the roar of the open air, and overwhelmed by the traffic and the sound of all the clocks striking, her voice crying “Remember my party to-night!” sounded frail and thin and very far away as Peter Walsh shut the door. (48)By coming “between them with extraordinary vigour” and then threatening to drown out Clarrisa’s party invitation, Big Ben imperils the kind of human connection – the intersections and combinations of rhythms – that stave off the potential chaos of life.In contrast to Clarrissa’s perception, Peter Walsh, the returning “Anglo-Indian,” seems impressed by the clock’s rhythm:Remember my party, remember my party, said Peter Walsh as he stepped down the street, speaking to himself rhythmically, in time with the flow of the sound, the downright sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour. (The leaden circles dissolved in the air.) (48)As he steps “in time with the flow of sound,” he becomes flushed with self-importance:And there he was, this fortunate man, himself, reflected in Victoria Street. All India lay behind him; plains, mountains; epidemics of cholera; a district twice as big as Ireland; decisions he had come to alone – he, Peter Walsh… For he had a turn for mechanics; had invented a plough in his district, had ordered wheel-barrows from England, but the coolies wouldn’t use them, all of which Clarissa knew nothing whatever about. (48-49)But when his confidence suddenly flags, Big Ben’s rhythm fails him:As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing, Peter Walsh said to himself; feeling hollowed out, utterly empty within. (49)As it “flaps on the mast,” time is simultaneously elevated and reduced to a symbol. Like a flag, it is an abstract icon of an ideal that failed imperialists like Peter Walsh can only hollowly salute out of the skeleton of habit.While Peter mourns his emptiness and thinks of Clarissa, a very different clock makes her voice heard: “Ah,” said St. Margaret’s, like a hostess who comes into her drawing-room on the very stroke of the hour and finds her guests there already. “I am not late” (49). Unlike the “irrevocable” voice of Big Ben, “her voice, being the voice of the hostess, is reluctant to inflict its individuality. Some grief for the past holds it back” (49). Appropriately, St. Margaret’s “ring of sound” (50), coming sometime after Big Ben’s announcement of the same hour, reminds Peter of Clarissa:It is Clarissa herself, he thought, with a deep emotion, and an extraordinarily clear, yet puzzling, recollection of her, as if this bell had come into the room years ago, where they sat at some moment of great intimacy, and had gone from one to the other and had left, like a bee laden with honey, laden with the moment. (50)Even for Peter, this “reluctant” voice becomes part of the mingling rhythms of past and present, in contrast to the impetuous rhythm of chronology.Like the voice of St. Margaret’s, Clarissa quietly resists Big Ben’s authoritative voice. When we first hear Big Ben, his relationship to Clarissa’s sense of time seems tenuous:One feels,… Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. (4)Rather than impelling time forward, the passage implies, Big Ben causes it almost to stop. Further, the clock endangers Clarissa’s biological rhythm, threatens to suspend her heart. Not surprisingly, the narrator later tells us Clarissa “feared time itself… how year by year her share was sliced” (30).As the novel progresses through the day, however, Big Ben’s threat to Clarissa seems to diminish. When he interupts her talk with Peter, he seems more like a common bully than a serious force to be reckoned with: “The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour stuck out between them with extraordinary vigour, as if a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumb-bells this way and that.” Swinging his dumb-bells, flexing his muscle, the clock is “inconsiderate,” but also somewhat silly-looking. As the clock strikes three, the sound seems irritating to Clarissa, but not dangerous: “The sound of Big Ben flooded Clarissa’s drawing-room, where she sat, ever so annoyed, at her writing-table; worried; annoyed” (117).We eventually see Clarissa subvert Big Ben’s bullying rhythm, as if his rules don’t apply to her:But here the other clock, the clock which always struck two minutes after Big Ben, came shuffling in with its lap full of odds and ends, which it dumped down as if Big Ben were all very well with his majesty laying down the law, so solemn, so just, but she must remember all sorts of little things besides – Mrs. Marsham, Ellie Henderson, glasses for ices – all sorts of little things came flooding and lapping and dancing in on the wake of that solemn stroke. (128)Clarissa will follow her own tempo, regardless of Big Ben’s hollow authority. The rhythm of the prose here again evokes the non-Western structures that Big Ben would assimilate. The other rhythm comes “shuffling,” “flooding and lapping and dancing on the wake” of London’s insistent metronome.Where Clarissa resists linear time, Septimus Smith decontructs it. Stockton reminds us that observation and perception are subjective relative to the position of the observer. Hence, “we are irrevocably within our universe, and the authority that would have enabled us to speak of it in terms of truth or fact has been undermined” (Stockton 48). Septimus’s insanity stems, according to Sir William Bradshaw, from his “not having a sense of proportion” (96). Unfortunately for him, Septimus understands that “the observing scientist-god, outside the system and predicting/controlling with the useful tools of lawfulness and determinism, is an archaic fiction within the new narratives of chaos” (Stockton 49). Septimus will not submit to the Doctors’ authority (“What power had Bradshaw over him?” 147), he will not adhere to the fixed and eternal referentiality of language (“He was attaching meanings to words of a symbolical kind. A serious symptom” 96), nor is he bound by the “shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing” metronomes of time.Septimus sees and celebrates a relationship between time and language. Like words, time is dynamic, symbolic, and potentially expressive:”It is time,” said Rezia.The word “time” split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time. He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. (70)The word time is not a signifier for a single fixed “truth.” It is pregnant with “riches” – with moment and memory, present, past, and future, even with Evans and with death. In order to pour its riches over Septimus, however, time must become sub-linguistic. The word has to split its husk, then new, better, “imperishable,” autonomous words can attach themselves to an immortal ode.Autocratic language and time, the “sense of proportion” Sir Bradshaw would have Septimus submit to, is explicitly imperial. The narrator rails at length against “divine proportion,” in service of whom Bradshaw “made not only himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion” (99). But the “advantages” of proportion are not limited to England:Proportion has a sister, less smiling, more formidable, a Goddess even now engaged – in the heat and sands of India, the mud and swamp of Africa, the purlieus of London, wherever in short the climate or the devil tempts men to fall from the true belief which is her own – is even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance. Conversion is her name… (100)England exports Proportion and Conversion to its imperial outposts through people like Peter Walsh, whose wheel-barrows and plough “the coolies wouldn’t use.” Like Big Ben’s “inconsiderate” attempts to prescribe time, the Empire tries to prescribe its industrial culture to India. Imperialists like Peter cannot hear India’s drums because they are too busy listening to their own voices, the clank of industry, the flick of a pocket knife, the leaden circles of Big Ben.Below the surface, though, people like Clarissa and Septimus see the frailty of authority. They hear the more organic rhythms of India as an undercurrent flooding into post-war London in spite of Bradshaw and Holmes and Big Ben. Though the novel starts at a certain moment in June, the intricate rhythms of the narrative have long been plunging and pausing, intersecting and diverging. Clarissa and Septimus each present powerful rhythms in the text, hers building to her party, his plunging to his death. In the moments preceding his suicide, Septimus’s life shapes itself into pleasant peaceful rhythms. Sewing, Rezia makes “a sound like a kettle on the hob; bubbling, murmuring” (143); her words “bubbled away drip, drip, drip, like a contented tap left running” (144); and suddenly, his life seems real: “it was so real, it was so substantial” (144). But into their “warm place, this pocket of still air” comes Holmes. Septimus cannot submit to proportion, but neither will he be allowed to live in this world without it. Dancing away his last moments, he finds his only option:hopping indeed from foot to foot… It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia’s (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing… But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings – what did they want?… “I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings. (149)Septimus’s death is not final, however; his rhythm pauses but does not fully subside. Clarissa’s theory of immortality is fulfilled in the text.It ended in a transcendental theory… that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death. (153)When Clarissa learns of Septimus’s death, his unseen part attaches itself to her. As Stockton points out, “Clarissa and Septimus merge into one character at the end, connected not through language, but extrasensory vision” (Stockton 50). But the “extrasensory vision” is conveyed through the narrator’s language by its rhythm:He had killed himself – but how? Always her body went through it first… her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain. (184)The passage is wrapped in percussive, alliterative language, and concludes with the onomatopoeic thudding of Septimus’s rhythm transferring to Clarissa. She does not feel her new rhythm, however, until the clock strikes. In the midst of Septimus’s death, Clarissa has a vision of life going on, of the old woman across the street “quite quietly, going to bed” (186). Suddenly, for her, the clock becomes another rhythm of life, and Septimus’s rhythm merges with hers:The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. There! The old lady had put out her light. …She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. (186)The striking clock is part of “all this going on.” The rhythm of life did not stop with Septimus’s death; Clarissa must go back and assemble.The narrator of Mrs. Dalloway plunges us into a complex web of rhythms at the beginning of the novel. The rhythm of Clarissa’s past mingles with that of her present and sends her into the future. The polyrhythmic structure of the novel concludes with a new downbeat that unifies Clarissa, Peter, and Sally with their memories and their present moment and promises to launch into new rhythmic complexities. The mingling of all the disparate rhythms at Clarissa’s party builds to “a little blur of sound” that announces the coming of “a new rhythm.” We feel the expectation, the “terror” and “ecstasy,” the danger of chaos before the resolution of “the one” in the narrator’s final words:What is this terror? what is this ecstasy?… What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?It is Clarissa, he said.For there she was.Works CitedBazin, Nancy Topping. Virginia Woolf and the Androgynous Vision. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1973.Dodd, Elizabeth. “‘On the Floor of the Mind’: Sentence Shape and Rhythm in Mrs. Dalloway.” The Midwest Quarterly 36:3 (1995): 275-288.Dowling, David. Mrs. Dalloway: Mapping Streams of Consciousness. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.Ebert, Teresa. “Metaphor, Metonymy, and Ideology: Language and Perception in Mrs. Dalloway.” Language and Style 18:2(1985): 152-164.Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1924.Hart, Mickey. Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey Into the Spirit of Percussion. San Francisco: Harper, 1990.Schulze, Robin Gail. “Design in Motion: Words, Music, and the Search for Coherence in the Works of Virginia Woolf and Arnold Schoenberg.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 25:2 (1992): 5-22.Stockton, Sharon. “Turbulence in the Text: Narrative Complexity in Mrs. Dalloway.” New Orleans Review 18:1 (1991): 46-55.Webb, Caroline. “Life After Death: The Allegorical Progress of Mrs. Dalloway.” Modern Fiction Studies 40:2 (1994): 279-298.Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1925.–.The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume Two, 1920-1924. Ed. Anne Oliver Bell. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Art as Indictment: Social Criticism in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
In any story, conflict is vital. It drives forth plot and reveals truths about the characters involved, keeping readers engaged. It also reflects the world of its writer, who often uses conflict as a tool to illustrate personal ideas. This is particularly true in the case of early twentieth-century writer Virginia Woolf. Throughout her most famous novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf draws readers into several different interpersonal conflicts, each of which involves a clash between English conventions and undeniable human conditions. Portraying these conflicts with keen sensitivity to injustice, folly, and ignorance, Woolf criticizes England’s traditional social system as a world in which people cannot acknowledge, confront, or understand what may disturb their comfort.Through the conflict between half-crazed World War I veteran Septimus Warren Smith and his prominent doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, Woolf highlights one of the English system’s most tragic failures: its tendency to isolate “undesirables” at any cost to human dignity. Septimus finds himself desensitized after fighting in the Great War and utterly unable to return to daily life, where empathy is a vital quality rather than a hindrance. Incapable of recalling ordinary emotions, he hallucinates and experiences bouts of melancholia and exhilaration, punctuated by moments of lucidity. However, because English society wants nothing to do with abnormality, Septimus finds himself “swallowed up” in London along with the “many millions of young men called Smith” (Woolf 84). Indeed, ironically, it is in the thick of his insanity that he realizes that “human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity…They desert the fallen” (89). In tracing Septimus’ visit to the renowned Sir William, Woolf indicates that even English doctors serve the sinister purpose of removing all disturbing agents from public life. Believing that the mentally unstable “should drink milk in bed,” Sir William “not only prosper[s] himself but ma[kes] England prosper, seclud[ing] her lunatics…[and] ma[king] it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views” (99). He realizes that Septimus’ is “a case of extreme gravity” (95), but instead of dealing with it directly, he recommends that Septimus “lie in a beautiful house in the country” (97), away from everyone who loves him. Lacking the faculties and resources to seek further help, Septimus and other “friendless” people who see Sir William have little choice but to obey his orders (102). Even more ominously, Woolf remarks that Sir William “endear[s] [himself] greatly to the relations of his victims” as he “shut[s] people up” (102). Here, her use of “victims” to describe Sir William’s patients, and her revelation that he is well loved by their relatives, cast an insidious shadow upon doctors in England, who seek not to help the sick but to “take care…that these unsocial impulses…[are] held in control” (102).Unfortunately, the English system’s way of sequestering away its pariahs claims more victims than those who receive treatment from Sir Williams; as Woolf evinces through the example of Lucrezia Smith, Septimus’ young wife, those who care for the “friendless” find themselves trapped between obeying societal rules and keeping intact everything they have loved (102). At first, not understanding Septimus’ illness, Lucrezia believes that her detached husband is acting “selfish” and despairs that “love makes one solitary” (23). When she finally realizes that something is desperately wrong with Septimus and obtains treatment for him, she finds herself more alone than ever, for Sir William tells her that treatment is “a question of rest…[a]way from her” (96). Realizing that she and Septimus have “been deserted” by those who purport to help (99), Lucrezia staunchly refuses to be separated from her husband, and readers follow her story with sympathy as she fights, in a sense, to revive Septimus before he has even died. Later, when Septimus commits suicide in order to avoid yet another doctor’s visit, readers also see clearly the tragedy that arises when doctors work to eliminate the strange and disturbing rather than to heal the sick. Through Lucrezia’s conflicts, first with Septimus, then with English doctors like Sir William, Woolf conveys the enormous damage done by a system that tolerates neither abnormality nor connection with it.In portraying several unfulfilling romances, Woolf also criticizes marriages that perpetuate complacency rather than nurturing mutual growth. For example, although protagonist Clarissa Dalloway falls in love with the idealistic Peter Walsh, she feels uncomfortable with Peter’s insistence that everything in her life “be shared; everything gone into” (8). Not content to let her develop simply into “the perfect hostess” (7), Peter demands “impossible things” of Clarissa, challenging her to think of life beyond throwing parties and entertaining guests (63). However, Clarissa eventually rejects Peter in favor of Richard Dalloway, a man who grants her “a little licence, a little independence” (7). A “thorough good sort” who displays “inexplicable niceness” (74), Richard nonetheless “make[s] a mere hostess” of Clarissa and “encourage[s] her worldliness” so that in the end, she still “care[s] too much for rank and society and getting on in the world” (76). Their marriage also falls short in passion and intimacy; Clarissa fails Richard sexually “again and again,” unable to “dispel a virginity…which cl[ings] to her” (31), and try as he might, Richard can never bring himself to tell Clarissa that he loves her. Ironically, the quixotic Peter also settles for a less fulfilling marriage and concludes simply that “women…don’t know what passion is” (80). Both Clarissa and Peter are aware of having failed somehow; Clarissa asks herself what she has made of her life, knowing that she has only stayed worldly, and the tortured Peter, still rather lovelorn, admits that he is “in some sense a failure,” having done little with his humanitarian ideas aside from trekking to “a peak in the Himalayas; reading science; reading philosophy” (50). Ultimately, because Clarissa and Peter marry people who do not challenge them or dare to make them uncomfortable from time to time, as they would have done for each other, neither of them counts life as a great success.Finally, Woolf uses the mutual resentment between Clarissa and Miss Doris Kilman to illustrate the stratified social arena of England, in which people of different classes are often too entrenched in their own prejudices to understand one another. Openly admitting that her dislike for the indigent Miss Kilman is unreasonable, Clarissa explains that “no doubt with another throw of the dice…she would have loved Miss Kilman” (12). However, as it is, she resents Miss Kilman because she “mak[es] you feel her superiority, your inferiority; how poor she [is]; how rich you [are]; how she live[s] in a slum” (12); in other words, Miss Kilman makes her feel guilty about the materialism of her own life. On the other hand, unable to look down on Clarissa from a seat of wealth or beauty, Miss Kilman resents Clarissa as a “condescending” woman “from the most worthless of all classes – the rich, with a smattering of culture” (123). Scorning Clarissa as one who “ha[s] known neither sorrow nor pleasure; who ha[s] trifled [her] life away,” she wishes “to overcome her; to unmask her” (125). Each woman, feeling provoked by sheer difference in lifestyle, is too quick to leap to judgment to communicate and identify with the other. On the one hand, Clarissa “care[s] much more for her roses than for the Armenians” (120), and on the other, Doris Kilman feels the overwhelming need to look down upon those whose fortunes she envies. Woolf’s portrayal of the hostility between these two women gives readers a glimpse of how people of different classes in England frequently misjudge each other, simply because attempting to understand one another would require stepping out of their comfort zones.In one of his moments of lucidity, Septimus realizes that “[c]ommunication is health; communication is happiness” (93). Coincidentally, one of the recurring reasons for conflict in Mrs. Dalloway is people’s inability to communicate with one another. Quick to condemn and slow to listen, they feel immediate fear or anger at anything that disconcerts them and place themselves in positions that foster complacency rather than growth. Herein lies Woolf’s strongest criticism of not only English society, but also of society in general: that man is a creature of habit and of comfort zones, and that it is precisely those comfort zones that feed discontent.Work CitedWoolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt, 1953.
Thoughts on the Triangle of Author, Reader, and Character in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’.
Mention Virginia Woolf and almost inevitably the words ‘stream of consciousness’ will appear. But what does this actually mean, and how does Woolf distance herself from both reader and Clarissa, and, indeed, does she bother? Mrs Dalloway is, we are frequently told, a radical new form of prose breaking the mould of 19th century fiction. Virginia Woolf herself predicted ‘we are trembling on the verge of one of the greatest ages of English literature’ as she and James Joyce struggled to define a new method of capturing character. She argued here that ‘all human relationships have shifted’ as a result of the Great War, rendering the Edwardian character portrait obsolete. The entanglement of reader, author, and character were as much a part of this new effort to depict personality as a ‘multi-layered self, in which dreams, memories, and fantasies were as important as actions and thoughts’ as they are vital to reading the novel. Using as a copy text edited by Stella McNichol this essay will boldly set forth in an attempt to determine the subtle web of relationships woven between these three combatants.Woolf felt her greatest breakthrough in the composition of Mrs Dalloway was her discovery of a ‘tunnelling process’ by which she learnt to ‘dig out beautiful caves behind my characters … the idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment.’ . As it developed, she believed it to gain a ‘more analytical and human … quality’ and so her depiction of character developed. She frequently had discussions with the painter Jacques Raverat about fictional form, who said the problem with writing was that it is ‘essentially linear’. It is almost impossible to express the way one’s mind responds to an idea, where, like a pebble being thrown into a pond, ‘splashes in the outer air’ are followed ‘under the surface’ by ‘waves that follow one another into dark and forgotten corners’. This idea of the far-fetching depths or the mind and the multiple consequences of an action were relatively unknown in literature’s caricatures before this time. Woolf replied that it is ‘precisely the task of the writer to go beyond the “formal railway of sentence”, and to show how people “think or dream … all over the place” ‘. Her tunnelling concept allowed her to move from linear characters to a form, which gave ‘the impression of simultaneous connections between the inner and the outer world, the past and the present, speech and silence: a form patterned like waves in a pond rather than a railway line’ . This development of characters is what catalyses the generation of new, extraordinarily complex spider-web of attachments and links, which insane Septimus sees all around him:They beckoned; leaves were alive, trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. (page 24)And yet it is not only Septimus who is connected on this vast web of inter-linked consciousness and thought, but Clarissa as well. Upon his death she reflects ‘death was an attempt to communicate’. The two characters seem drawn together in a way more deep than their mere casual common acquaintance with Sir William Bradshaw would allow.It is a debatable question to what extent Woolf is personally involved with her characters. It is always dangerous to assume that an author’s work is based on their life, as the distinction between poet and persona, and playwright and character in other mediums shows. Desdemona may have died, but it would clearly be absurd to say that this was because Shakespeare did not like women. However, perhaps it should not be attempted to strip a work down to its bones and deny the fundamental relationship between and author, a creator, and her creations. The text of Mrs Dalloway and some of the experiences of Woolf’s life appear, and this is by no means certain, to be related. It has often been suggested that many of her characters seem based on people within the scope of her experience. Clarissa’s world is a social arena of parties and hostesses, much like the one into which the eligible Miss Stephen found herself dragged by her cousin George Duckworth and Kitty Maxse, a family friend . Virginia Stephen found Kitty superficial and many critics have considered that she could have been the template for Clarissa. It is certainly a convincing argument that Woolf is not creating an impression of herself in Mrs Dalloway and evidence for this is provided by her confession that she ‘found Clarissa in some way tinselly’ and that ‘some distaste for her persisted’ throughout the novel’s composition. Also in the novel, even in the opening pages, are phrases, even in the opening of the novel, which appear in what must be Clarissa’s thoughts, and yet are sharply at odds with Woolf’s socialist tendencies:Heaven only knows why one loves it so … but … the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same (page 4)Here the ascorbic blame inherent in the phrase ‘drink their downfall’ seems unlikely to come from Woolf, the friend of the working classes. Mrs Dalloway is a society woman, superficial, and self-contained, and a development of an earlier character from another story.Other parallels with the adolescent Woolf can be seen in the description of Sally Seton, who was based on her cousin, Madge Symonds. When she was fifteen she was apparently ‘in love’ with Madge and on one occasion ‘Virginia … gripping the handle of the water-jug in the top room at Hyde Park Gate … exclaimed to herself: “Madge is here; at this moment she is actually under this roof.”‘ The young Woolf never acted on her feelings, much the same as Clarissa’s feelings for Sally Seton, although Woolf did later break out of the sexual restrictions she felt upon herself and have such a relationship with another woman. Other current acquaintances have been identified as characters in the books. Lydia Lopokova the dancer was ‘observed’ as ‘a type of Rezia’, and Lady Bruton was probably based on Woolf’s knowledge of Lady Colefax , who declared ‘I have been tolerant too often. The truth is people scarcely care for each other.’ This mirrors the woman who can ‘domineeringly bush aside all this unnecessary trifling’. There are, then, a lot of silhouettes, if not caricatures, of Woolf’s friends and acquaintances in the characters of the novel. Clarissa’s world is similar to Woolf’s in a way that Septimus’ is not. But she has infiltrated the character of Septimus at a far deeper level than mere social surroundings. She declared ‘I adumbrate here a study of sanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and insane side by side.’ In this character she drew on the memories of her own intermittent states of madness, which had led, in 1895 and 1915, to suicide attempts. The intensity with which she evoked her own experience can be seen in that in September 1923, while writing about Septimus, she had a ‘mental tremor’ , threatening to recall her periods of insanity.That the madness of Septimus equated to Woolf’s own experience can be ascertained from the accounts given by Quentin Bell and Leonard Woolf. The former explained ‘her symptoms were of a manic depressive character’ , whilst the latter referred to his wife’s illness as ‘manic depressive insanity’ , although ‘the doctors called it neurasthenia … a name which covered a multitude of sins, symptoms, and miseries.’ His alarmingly clinical categorisation of her symptoms include progression from exhaustion and insomnia to high excitement, violence and delusions alternation with comatose melancholia, depression, guilt, and disgust at food, all of which have points of similarity in Septimus’ delusions and misery. He hears:A sparrow … sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime (page 26)This corresponds to Woolf’s recollections of her own madness, where she listened to the birds dinging in Greek and imagined that King Edward VII lurked in the azaleas using foul language. Another parallel can be seen in Woolf’s hostility to her doctors, particularly to Sir George Savage, on whom Sir William Bradshaw.Clarissa and Septimus form the two pillars of Woolf’s ‘study of sanity and suicide’. The one character circulates in an eerie facsimile of Woolf’s own history and surroundings, the other displays some of her more alarming traits. Her alteration of her original title, ‘The Hours’, shows how she was having to manipulate the centres of interest in her book and alter the title as she began to focus her attention on the characters rather than the structure of the day. The emphasis now clearly falls on Clarissa, although Woolf works hard to make sure that she does not overshadow any of the other themes in the book giving each of her characters and ideas equal attention (for evidence of this, consult the plot summary in Lee, 1977, p 96 – 98).As to the ‘stream of consciousness’, what can be seen from the first few pages is that whilst the novel deceptively seems to provide the start for a conventional ‘story’, we are plunged into Clarissa, much as she ‘plunges’ into the day (page 3). The pleasure of the morning reminds her of similar feelings at Bourton, making her think of Peter Walsh, and instructing us that he is soon to return from India. Already, as Lee puts it, ‘we are made aware that the past is not in contrast with the present, but involved with it.’ . Clarissa provides the link between past and present as her consciousness swims between them, feeling the same, recognising Peter Walsh make remarks about vegetables and playing with his pocket-knife. As she remembers ‘his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness’, she herself is evaluated by Scrope Purvis even in the act of evaluating the past. This external view of Clarissa as a ‘jay, blue green, light, vivacious,’ is balanced with the emotional life with which the reader is involved. Clarissa exists on different levels to the reader, to the other characters, and also, perhaps, to Woolf.One of the things that must be determined when reading Mrs Dalloway is the certainty that none of the characters are lying to the reader, or mistaken. We see different views of Clarissa, and yet must be confident that Scrope Purvis and Miss Pym are not lying, or merely unreliable. Both of these characters bring to our attention the facts of Clarissa’s age and frailty, making perhaps more painful the irony of her love of life and vitality. There are innumerable other views of Clarissa seen through the eyes of the other characters; Sally says she is ‘hard on people’; Richard imagines that she ‘wanted support,’ (page 129). At the party also there are many more views from Sir Harry who likes herin spite of her damnable, difficult, upper-class refinement, which made it impossible to ask Clarissa Dalloway to sit on his knee (page 194)to Jim Hutton who thinks her ‘A prig, but how charming to look at!’ (page 195). Clarissa does then exist as a creature in the eyes of others, and these views help Woolf to guide the reader. Woolf shows us her without personal comment, emphasising the ‘streaked, involved, inextricably confused’ and the chaos of human existence, whilst at the same time providing the reader with the multi-layered consciousness of the internal Mrs Dalloway.From the outside, Clarissa is a society hostess, but we are warned against the dangers of judging people so singularly on appearance by the character herself, who states the dangers of saying ‘of anyone in the world … that they were this or were that’. Perhaps, then, this external self is a mockery of the inner, true self, yet at the same time it is a valid aspect of Clarissa.Interestingly Clarissa also thinks of ‘herself’ as a ‘character’ and sums herself up as though in the third person. She looks in the mirror and sees herself ‘pointed; dart-like; definite’ (page 42). She recognises that her face and herself is the sum of many different and incompatible parts. But it is this whole self which others see as the woman who ‘could not think, write, even play the piano … muddled Armenians and Turks.’Underneath Clarissa’s perfect hostess exterior lies her emotional self, composed of her love for Sally Seton and Peter Walsh, and of her feelings for those around her: Richard, Elizabeth, Miss Kilman, her party, and life alone. There is a continual conflict between her desires to reach out to others, to ‘combine, to create’ (page 135), and her desire to withdraw and respect ‘the privacy of the soul’. Her party represents her love of drawing people together, or harmonising, (page 140), and this perhaps equates with the passion of the ‘match burning in the crocus’ (page 36) and her hating of Miss Kilman. And it is the act of this passionate hating which brings and energy and life; ‘It was enemies one wanted, not friends’ (page 193). On the other side, Clarissa’s tendency to withdraw ‘like a nun who has left the world’ (page 33), going upstairs to her narrow bed like ‘a child exploring a tower’ (page 35) leaves her failing Richard sexually, unable to abandon herself, feeling her part in the world dwindling because Lady Bruton has not asked her to lunch. This cold, restrained, restrictive world is best shown in contrast with the passion of the memories Peter evokes in her, and in an image Woolf provides us with:It was all over for her. The sheet was stretched and the bed narrow. She had gone up into the tower alone and left them blackberrying in the sun. (page 523)Deeper inside Clarissa is her belief in her connection to the world through the same, intangible web that Septimus feels:Somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, … part of people she had never met (page 12)There is a feeling that Septimus’ death perhaps ‘redeems the hollowness of her life’ and the ‘corruption, lies, chatter’ (page 204) which surrounds her.Woolf’s portrayal of Clarissa is, perhaps, less charitable. The image of Lucy, Clarissa’s maid, ‘taking Mrs Dalloway’s parasol, handled it like a sacred weapon in which a goddess, having acquitted herself honourably in the field of battle, sheds, and places it in the umbrella stand’ (page 34). The Royalty, Empire, and Government (which make Clarissa stiffen with pride when she suspects that the queen may be passing) are made to look ridiculous. Equally, Woolf treats some of the characters that Clarissa admires with vicious satire:She had the thought of Empire always at hand and had acquired from her association with that armoured goddess her ramrod bearing, her robustness of demeanour (page 199)Clarissa herself is even attacked from within her world, her society. Peter Walsh says of her ‘Here she’s been sitting all the time I’ve been in India; mending her dress; playing about; going to parties’ (page 46). He attacks her ‘timid, hard, arrogant, prudish manner on page 66, and the ‘effusive insincerity’ of her party air on page 185. Similarly Doris Kilman attacks her ‘air of freshness and fashion’ (page 138), much like Woolf labelling her ‘tinselly’. From her own mouth, too , is she condemned, when she considers that by loving her roses she is helping ‘the Albanians, or was it the Armenians?’. Here Woolf invites the reader to attack her triviality and ignorance and hollowness.Mrs Dalloway is a character partly evoking sympathy and partly distaste. She is used to illustrate to the bewildered reader the levels of emotion and character of which humanity is constructed; and, although we are in her head, Woolf still skilfully manipulates the character so that she is immediately intriguing. The author’s interest in character is clear, and it is instructional to see to what extent it is possible that she drew on her own experiences and acquaintances to create the figures in the book. The characters are also used to expose some of the main ideas in the book; social awareness, an invisible web of mutual-connectivity, and the conflict between passion and respectability. From all this the reader is left to draw his own conclusions.
The Changing Society of Mrs. Dalloway
What is the novel about?”Mrs Dalloway” is a novel so rich and complex in its imagery, and the issues to which it gives rise are so many and so varied, that to assign one distinctly defined meaning to it, as one might for a Victorian or Edwardian novel, is to miss the point of Woolf’s style. Woolf was adamant that the literary conventions of her Edwardian predecessors, such as reliance on material evidence and external fact, had been rendered obsolete by the radical changes in society following the War: ‘For us,’ she asserted, ‘those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.’ The novel is a consciously intellectual piece of writing: Woolf was throwing down the gauntlet to the critics of the day who, like the characters in the book, were reluctant to admit to themselves that society had changed. On 18th February 1922 she writes in her Diary, ‘I’m to write what I like; and they’re to say what they like’ : this attitude to life is apparent throughout the novel, presented as an ideal in the figure of Sally Seton.Woolf’s portrayal of time in Mrs. Dalloway is key to this idea of change following the War: it is always characterised in an oppressive light, beginning in the first passage of the novel: ‘There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air’ . The use of ‘irrevocable’ really sets the tone that will continue throughout the novel whenever the concept of time is mentioned, as it frequently is . Woolf gives the impression that life in London during the early 1920s is governed by time: it is a case that ‘the clock’, as Lord Tennyson wrote, ‘beats out the little lives of men’ . This concept is underlined when Woolf links the English obsession with time to Sir William Bradshaw’s ironical goddess, ‘divine proportion’: ‘Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock…announced…that it was half-past one.”Proportion’, in Sir William Bradshaw’s eyes, means conformity in a very sinister Brave New World sense:’Worshipping proportion, Sir William…made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion’Thus Woolf blames doctors for being the instruments by which England secludes anybody with a condition which is not understood or considered to be against the public interest: anything which reminds society of the effects of the war. By locking up shell-shock victims out of the public eye society can ignore them and the gender issues that they raise . This attitude is propagated not only by the medical profession; but by the same people that consider it necessary to have clocks at every street corner, always regimenting the lives of all that pass : the section of society personified in the absurdly pompous Hugh Whitbread. The link between Hugh and the medical profession that Woolf so despised is made clear the first time Clarissa meets him: ‘They had just come up…to see doctors. Other people came to see pictures; go to the opera; take their daughters out; the Whitbreads came “to see doctors”…Times without number Clarissa had visited Evelyn Whitbread in a nursing home’. Woolf is scathingly critical of Hugh throughout the novel, using an ironic voice to undermine what she termed ‘the highest tide of the finest societies’ greatest season all the superlatives that mean nothing to me’ . Hugh with his ‘little job at court’, whose only talent is ‘the art of writing letters to the Times’ . He is the worst kind of frivolous: ‘He did not go deeply. He brushed surfaces’ he approves of commercial clocks and the manipulation that they represent on a subconscious level. Woolf is enraged at people of this type: she is disgusted that anybody could be so shallow in the aftermath of the War; and she knows they manage it by ignoring the fact that anything has changed at all. This attitude is apparent on page five, where Clarissa exclaims in her thoughts:’but [the war] was over; thank Heaven over. It was June. The King and Queen were at the Palace. And everywhere, though it was still so early, there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats; Lords, Ascot, Ranelagh and all the rest of it…’Clarissa is wrong: the war is far from over. English society has tried to go back to exactly the way it was before the war, relying on the old bastions of English upper-middle class life to do it ‘Lords, Ascot, Ranelagh’ but it is impossible: it was such a world-changing event that much as people might try to forget it, below the surface there is a cauldron of unresolved issues just waiting to bubble over. Again the passage converges on the very personification of pre-war England: ‘her old friend Hugh the admirable Hugh!’ This attitude is an analogy for the repressed emotional state of many of the characters we see in the novel, especially the men. A good public school upbringing teaches one never to express emotion because it is not ‘proper’, just as it teaches one the importance of being on time.It is characters’ preoccupation with the helplessness they feel because of the unidirectional nature of time that causes them to be so caught up in the past and in their own memories. The upper-middle class characters we see in the novel are used to having everything their own way; to being in control of all aspects of their lives. The only thing that they can’t control is time, so they obsess about being young again, that time in their lives when anything was still possible and they had not yet made any concrete decisions on the direction that their lives were to take. It is only characters that are unhappy with their lives that seem to do this, however (admittedly, this is most of the people in the novel). This is one of the methods that we see throughout the novel that society uses to avoid accepting the reality of the world around them, and that that world has changed. It is another method of blocking out the war. Sally Seton is the one person that is happy with her life, and although the time at Bourton meant a lot to her, she does not need to dwell on it because she is content with the decisions she has made: ‘But going to Bourton had meant a lot to her had kept her sane, she believed, so unhappy had she been at home. But that was all a thing of the past all over now’ . Some might say that she has sacrificed her passion and independence, and her rebellious side, in order to be happy; but because she is happy, she does not need to be rebellious.However, to the discredit of society, the only times when characters seem to be truly happy in the novel are when they throw off the constraints of being on time and the regimentation of 1920s life and do things on a whim. The most striking example of this is Elizabeth’s omnibus ride, where she for once steps out from under her mother’s control and the control of Doris Kilman and makes her own decisions. The statement, ‘Elizabeth stepped forward and most competently boarded the omnibus, in front of everybody’ , seems rather laughable, but in fact it is a deliberate use of irony by Woolf: Elizabeth would not normally be allowed to go off on her own, and probably has not used an omnibus very many times, so it is fair for her to be excited and somewhat anxious about doing something unfamiliar in front of others. It is a damning indictment of upper-middle class English society that something so insignificant as taking an omnibus and walking up the Strand should inspire thoughts of pirates and ‘reckless, unscrupulous’ adventures. The omnibus is a symbol of liberty and of independence, ‘insolent’, ‘bold’ and ‘arrogant’, its own master. This inspires Elizabeth to dream, which might seem a silly extravagance but gives for a moment a glimmer of hope for the new generations trying to shed the shackles of nineteenth century social stereotypes. However, this apparent freedom is not quite true all the time Elizabeth has in the back of her mind her mother’s party, which she must not miss. Society has done its work well, and it is significant that as soon as her thoughts turn from dreams to ‘real life’, she wonders: ‘But what was the time? where was a clock?’ Immediately Elizabeth becomes more cautious, retreats into herself and suddenly is looking ‘shyly’, considering herself a ‘stray’. Crucially, the narrative then switches back to her mother, and we see that Mrs. Dalloway has no concept of what her daughter is like we have just had a glimpse of the real Elizabeth, the living Elizabeth waiting to break out, yet for most of the time this side is suppressed because it is not considered ‘proper’.Hugh, Richard, Peter and Septimus are all products of the same system of imposed emotional repression, but the degree to which it has ultimately damaged them is proportional to the amount of stress under which it has been put. Hugh and Richard have never had problems beyond having somewhat sterile marriages; but Peter had to deal with being rejected by Clarissa, and couldn’t cope: he has never been able to deal with his feelings of rejection because he has never been able to admit them fully. As a consequence he has never been able to settle down and be happy, never been able to love another woman because he compares every one to Clarissa. He calls it ‘the terrible scene which he believed had mattered more than anything in the whole of his life’ , and afterwards, instead of dealing with his feelings, he runs away: ‘It was over. He went away that night. He never saw her again.’ Septimus had to undergo the greatest test of his emotional ‘mettle’, and found his capacity for repression to be too great. Instead of coping with his friend Evans’ death, he completely passes over it; feels nothing: ‘Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognising that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself on feeling very little and very reasonably . The War had taught him. It was sublime’ . This repression of feeling (described ironically by Woolf as ‘[developing] manliness’) has far reaching effects, however: having repressed his love for Evans (see footnote 16, below), Septimus is now left unable to love anybody or anything. Having gone to war for love, the love of Shakespeare and ‘Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square’, his whole war has now been stripped of meaning, and he is left with the worst feeling of all: indifference. In an attempt to save himself, he married Lucrezia ‘when the panic was on him that he could not feel’ . He has no concept of the passage of time as dictated by Big Ben: he lives completely in the past, for the war affected him in such a profound and serious way that every other experience that he has had since has been insignificant in comparison.Septimus’ suicide is a complicated issue. It seems initially that he has done it for loathing of himself and of society, having thought, ‘ He had not cared when Evans was killed; that was worst…he had married his wife without loving her; had lied to her; seduced her; outraged Miss Isabel Pole…The verdict of human nature on such a wretch was death’ and shortly before:’it must be the fault of the world then that he could not feel.’ He then proceeds to rant about how ‘Shakespeare loathed humanity’ and how ‘the business of copulation was filth to [Shakespeare] before the end…One cannot bring children into a world like this’ . However, the real reason for Septimus’ suicide is that it is the only way in which he can take control of his life and win over Holmes and Bradshaw, who are ironically characterised by Septimus as ‘human nature’. ‘Human nature’ really means popular opinion: it is our old friend ‘the admirable Hugh!’ again all the people that want to hide Septimus’ condition from the world. It is damning of society that Septimus, who professes ‘He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot’, is forced to kill himself to escape ‘human nature’, ‘men who…saw nothing clear, yet ruled, yet inflicted’. This is a key theme in the book: it is analogous with people who know nothing about the war passing judgement over it and ignoring the important lessons that have to be learnt: as King Lear said, ‘a dog’s obeyed in office’ .Septimus accepts the inevitability of his death, just as Clarissa does her own: Septimus’ ‘Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more’ is very similar to Clarissa’s ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’ . However, their reactions are different because their situations are different: Septimus acknowledges that ‘Life was good. The sun hot’, but he has no reason to continue living because he cannot feel, like King Lear, who dies after the death of Cordelia because without her love he has no reason to carry on living. Clarissa’s moment in ‘the little room where the Prime Minister had gone with Lady Bruton’ is a very liminal one: it has many similarities to Septimus’ last moments and it is conceivable that Clarissa could throw herself out of the window, too. As she sees the old lady in the room opposite getting ready for bed, she sees a vision of her future self, alone, with the sound of the clock striking in the background to remind her of time passing that can never be regained, and realises the inevitability of her death. But Clarissa, unlike Septimus, has a reason to live: she has Peter and Sally. It is the thought of them that finally pulls her out of the trance-like moment, as she thinks, ‘But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter . And she came in from the little room.’ In this moment of tranquillity Clarissa thinks, ‘It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed alone.’ She is able to step back from the hubbub of the party and see into another world, to the larger sense of life and death occurring around her. This is also part of Woolf’s theory of ‘connectedness’, in which every part of life is interlinked in some way .’Moments’ like this are very important within the novel’s structure, and within Woolf’s philosophy on life. Woolf depicts life as a series of defining ‘moments’, instances of intense feeling that change one’s life forever, interspersed with everyday life. One such moment in the novel is what Clarissa describes as ‘the most exquisite moment of her whole life’, when Sally kisses her on the lips next to the stone urn one night at Bourton. When characters reminisce, they remember things as ‘moments’ not remembering everything about a particular period, but having intense and vivid memories of specific defining ‘moments’.And really, that is what the novel is about: life. In her short story An Unwritten Novel (1920), she also writes of life: ‘Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of it – what? That life’s like that, it seems’. Life, for Woolf, is spontaneous and undefined, unlike the Edwardian and Victorian views that focussed on facts as the basis of life. After the war, the security that was present before is gone; nothing is the same. The passage about ‘the solitary traveller’ debates whether it is possible in a post-war world to have a civilised life? Only, he decides, if we never go back to the way things were before the war: ‘may I never go back to the lamplight; to the sitting room; never finish my book…rather let me walk straight on to this great figure, who will, with a toss of her head, mount me on her streamers and let me blow to nothingness with the rest.’ In this way it is analogous to the novel as a whole, but its conclusion is ambiguous: it seems to prophesy another world war, with the women knitting reminiscent of the fates, and the men digging (trenches) in the garden, ‘as if some august fate, known to them, awaited without fear, were about to sweep them into complete annihilation.’ Crucially, in its ambiguous, ‘But to whom does the solitary traveller make reply?’ the verdict has not been passed yet: it is up to the people to decide their own fates, to learn from the lessons of the War. If they do not, they are indeed engineering their own annihilation.In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf portrays life on a personal level as a battle for independence against the oppressive force of time, which devours life constantly and methodically, and for control over one’s life. This is represented throughout the novel by Woolf’s use of water imagery, such as the fountain in the scene where Clarissa rejects Peter: water is never quite under control; always there is a hint of danger, of unpredictability. It is unrelenting, and can be channelled, but not confined . Above all, it is always changing, never keeping the same form or appearance from moment to moment: such is life.
Superficiality in Mrs. Dalloway
‘Clarissa could not be wider of the mark when she “thank(s) heaven” that “the war was over”. Virtually every character we encounter is to some degree a living casualty of the class-based superficiality that led to the conflict and continues to dominate society.’ Explore and discuss.The war and its effects were far from over by June 1923; they were simply put out of mind by the upper classes in order to return to a sense of pre-war normality . Furthermore, the problems that caused the war still permeate Mrs Dalloway’s society with an unquestionable resonance. These problems repeatedly manifest themselves in Mrs Dalloway and her guests and although stemming from a variety of factors, the problems for London in 1923 stem largely from superficial attitudes held in society. However, behind the superficiality of an extremely class based London there exist brief ‘moments’ and subtle indications that society recognises the problems and that change both has and will continue to come.The attitude held in society before entering the war still continues to dominate Clarissa’s life. Her surname, Dalloway, has implications of the word dally and ‘dally’ eloquently describes how she leads her life. She tells us in her own interior monologue at the beginning of the novel that “she had a passion for gloves” and “Bond Street fascinated her” indicating the materialism that engulfs her world . Furthermore, her verbal exchanges with characters are inevitably full of falsities such as the note written to Peter Walsh in wildly exaggerated language, “heavenly to see you”, which lacks any sincerity. Her exchange with Hugh Whitbread in the park by the government buildings is equally false. Rather than listening to what Hugh Whitbread says she is “conscious of her hat”. Hugh’s description of Evelyn’s continued illness in the same paragraph contrasts with Clarissa’s thoughts and further makes us aware of her ‘apparent’ superficiality. Peter Walsh, although biased, comments twice that Clarissa is “insincere”. Her reply to Lady Brunton at her party that she was “perfectly well” is equally false and she only gives this reply because “Lady Brunton detested illness in the wives of politicians.”We are reminded throughout the novel that “there was always something cold in Clarissa” further suggesting a lack of real compassion. The novel builds up to Clarissa’s party and the stream of consciousness in her own internal monologue throughout the party focuses on names and positions of people rather than real human emotion. The “Portuguese Ambassador” and the “Prince of Wales” are significant only in what they represent in terms of society and Clarissa does not once consider them as emotional human beings but rather positions in society. Equally the “Prime Minister” remains nameless, further highlighting the importance for Clarissa of position in society rather than real ‘human qualities’. The repeated mention of the “Prime Minister” twenty nine times in Clarissa’s thoughts in one day is a repeated and poignant reminder of the emphasis she places on positions in class and society. Equally, the names given to those surrounding Mrs Dalloway are intended to amuse and poke fun at the pomp and superficiality of Clarissa’s life in the upper reaches of high society. The names “Willie Titcomb”, “Milly Brush” and “Lady Needham” all serve to belittle their elevated and rather antiquated attitudes and actions. By the time we reach Clarissa Dalloway’s party we are in no doubt that all Virginia Woolf’s characters are in differing degrees casualties of the class-based attitude that continues to reign supreme in Mrs Dalloway’s post-Victorian London. However, the focus of the novel on Clarissa makes her appear the worst affected.Even before the party her class-based superficiality is made more blatant through the mention of “Lords, Ascot” and “Ranelagh”, all of which are typically upper class events. Her sentiment that “she felt nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? But she loved her roses” helps to suggest that she is really as fake as she appears due to the contrast between something that is internationally influential and a bouquet of inconsequential roses. The narrative focuses on colours in the first description of Clarissa Dalloway, mentioning “white”, “blue-green” and “pink”. The mention of how she looked (especially in terms of colours) instead of focusing on emotion or thought helps to symbolise Clarissa’s superficiality further. Early descriptions of Clarissa as “very upright” and “vivacious” strengthen our sentiment towards a superficial, self-elevated lady because a lack of real emotional description means we are unable to picture her in an emotional sense. Furthermore, her description is often given to the reader in a rather animalistic way. By page four we hear that there is “a touch of the bird about her” and adjectives such as “picked” and “permeated”, which lack any human qualities are used to describe her actions and suggest that she is emotionless. We are presented with a main character that shows all the signs of being a casualty from the war and the superficiality that caused it.However it is not just Clarissa who appears to be glaringly superficial. Peter Walsh is flippant in his obsession with the “news from India”. However, Peter Walsh illustrates and symbolises eloquently the troubles within the Empire as well as the social problems inherent in Mrs Dalloway’s society. He describes himself with extremely exaggerated imagery such as “tortured” and considers that Clarissa hated “frumps, fogies, failures, like himself presumably.” The use of alliteration punches home his apparent lack of self-esteem, which he hides behind an outer shell. The choice of the word “frump”, which is normally reserved for women and fogy, which implies an elderly person helps to further heighten our awareness of the depth of Peter Walsh’s self-loathing. His pocket knife takes the role of a quasi-weapon against his emotional hurts and insecurities. Furthermore, his pocket knife is described to the reader on the first page and from then on whenever he thinks of Clarissa “out came his pocket knife”. We realise right from the moment we first encounter Peter Walsh that although not present for the war he has been affected by the superficiality surrounding it.Richard Dalloway serves to demonstrate and symbolise the political snobbery and frivolous nature of London in 1923. The description of his “humble reforms” and the repeated emphasis on the fact his name was “at the end of letters to the Times” illustrates the lack of real substance and sincerity of Richard Dalloway, the conservative government and the world of politics he represents. The fact Richard is not mentioned in the novel for the first twenty pages, despite his quasi-important role in politics and his role as the husband of the protagonist further suggests he is not as important as he sees himself . Peter Walsh’s often-misguided insights into London life in 1923 are surprisingly accurate in regard to Richard Dalloway. He comments that Dalloway has “a great deal of the public-spirited, British Empire, tariff-reform governing lass spirit” in him. Richard’s actions inevitably support this sentiment and it becomes increasingly clear that like Clarissa and Peter Walsh, Richard Dalloway is a casualty of the shallow, class based snobbery that caused the war and continues to dominate society. One could “know to a tittle what Richard thought by reading the Morning Post”. Similarly, in stark contrast to Septimus’ thoughtful views on Shakespeare, Richard Dalloway flippantly states “that no decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes”. Equally, it is commented on Richard’s insistence on sleeping after lunch simply “because a doctor had ordered it once” further suggesting that Richard has been given these points of view and that he does not know how to really think for himself. He continues to use antiquated language, such as “luncheon” and this heightens the air of pomp and falsity his character creates as he has clearly learnt these words to impress rather than picked them up naturally. The joke at Bourton where Peter and Sally mimic his voice (“my name is Dalloway”) strengthens our opinion that Mr Dalloway, like his Wife and Peter Walsh, is simply a victim of the superficial attitude in society at the time.Similarly, Elizabeth’s adventure on the omnibus in Victoria street hints at an escape from the restraints of a superficial society. She realises “she so much preferred being left alone to do what she liked in the country” and that “she was delighted to be free”. Furthermore, the absence of Big Ben or any mention of time throughout this passage creates a less oppressive tone to the section and we are given a glimpse of a less superficial society, where deadlines and class-based politics are no longer relevant. The Strand is the setting of Elizabeth’s walk and this contrasts with Conformist Westminster making the point that she is attempting to escape from being a victim of conforming to the materialism that dominates society. However, Elizabeth’s freedom from the social customs thrust on her by the society that surrounds her is short-lived and she quickly returns with the sentiment that “she had to go to parties”. It is evident that a trivial dilettante attitude engulfs her thought processes in a similar way to all the other characters in the novel. Thoughtless comments such as “she might be a doctor. She might be a farmer. Animals are often ill” re-establish the suggestion that, in common with most of the older characters in the novel she lives life and will continue to be trapped in the social customs that surround her.However, it is not just the central characters that suffer from this extreme superficiality. Significantly, in the opening pages when “The motor car stoppedopposite Mulberry’s shop” and “everyone looked”; it is obvious that social expectations control English society. The car and its mysterious occupant are used to highlight the fact everyone is very curious of something rather unimportant. Furthermore, the car is symbolic of the English people looking at it in the fact that it has a glossy exterior but the interior of the car (like the inner self of most of Virginia Woolf’s characters) is hidden from the world. Reiza suggests “the English people.she admired in a way” when she’s looking at the people staring at the motor car her tone and the situation prompts the reader to an even more sceptical outlook on London society. The use of focused, intricate details such as “boys on bicycles (who) sprang off” and the repeated use of phrases and words such as “veil-like”, “curious” and “whose face was it?” highlight the interest something so unimportant has caused. Even as it drives down to Piccadilly it was “still ruffling the faces on both sides of the street.” Equally Dr Holme’s blasé attitude to Septimus’ shell shock implicates the medical profession into a role in a superficial, thoughtless London suggesting that Septimus is “in a funk.” This is an entirely unprofessional and unresearched statement, but Holmes is adamant he is right. The fact that Dr Holmes refers to Septimus as “the coward” indicates the hollowness of his professional views. Furthermore, the ironic name beset on him by Virginia Woolf, with it’s implications of Sherlock Holmes and the greatness that accompanies the detective belittles the doctor and highlights that he is clearly a victim of superficiality. Doris Kilman becomes symbolic of the teaching profession’s superficiality and is portrayed as a predatory character “fingering the last two inches of a chocolate eclair” in a very animalistic way. She is described in a heightened physically grotesque way in order to suggest her pompousness and falsity. Parts of her body are highlighted and we are told she “projected her chin”, “the thick fingers curled inwards” and “the great hand opened and shut”. All these sinister physical images help to suggest that important distinctions such as the fact “she had her degree” and that “her knowledge of modern history was more than respectable”, which put her in a certain class are negative, materialistic factors that continue to dominate society. It repeatedly appears that wherever the focus of Virginia Woolf’s impressionistic like portrayal of London in June 1923 we are bamboozled with images, suggestions and direct references to the flaws in London society and it becomes clear that all the characters are victims of an extremely shallow, class-orientated society.However, there are brief moments where it is evident that change, away from social etiquette and snobbery both has and will continue to happen. The novel uses three different perspectives to examine the change. Clarissa and her surroundings, the role of Septimus Warren-Smith and the use of clocks and time.Big Ben continually reminds us of the inexorable movement of time and the clock becomes increasingly symbolic of change that is happening in society. The subtle way “Big Ben strikes” continually in the background reflects the stirrings of change in society away from the present class-based society. The differing descriptions of the clock’s sound help us to see that change is currently happening and will continue to happen “unquestionably”. The first description of Big Ben, (“There! Out it boomed. First a warning musical; then the hour irrevocable.”) suggests through the inclusion of the word “irrevocable” that it cannot be undone and change will continue to happen. However, there is an air of unthoughtful, over-inflated granditude in the description of the clock: the words “boomed” and “irrevocable” give a far more grandiose image than the Clock rightly deserves. This reflects the people in Mrs Dalloway’s circle exactly in the sense they are over-inflated and superficial. Furthermore, one of the last descriptions of Big Ben, “volumously” and “tremulously” is a more thoughtful description. We realise that as Big Ben’s description becomes more thoughtful, real and accurate and loses its over inflated description so the people in London’s upper classes are beginning to see that they are superficial and false. It is clear that the way Big Ben is viewed is symbolic of the changing attitude in London. Furthermore the “clocks of Harley Street” and the “commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford” both mirror in a parallel way the symbol of Big Ben and go to suggest that the change we see in Big Ben is a universal change throughout London. The inclusion of other clocks gives a more universal sense of change and help with a comprehension of the change happening in London society.Notably, Clarissa begins to realise that she is a casualty of her society’s falsities and superficialities. At her dinner she finally notices an “air of false composure” and that being just “nice looking” was not quite as important as she had started the day thinking. The description of the party through Clarissa’s eyes is both belittling and slightly derogatory. This is in contrast with the way Peter Walsh still views the party and this contrast heightens our awareness of Clarissa’s changing perspective and suggests to the reader that she is emerging from the shallow attitude that she previously held. The use of the word “little” repeatedly instils a sense of belittlement at Clarissa’s own party. The sentence syntax puts the emphasis on “Little service”, highlighting her movement away from a society she has always embraced. The repetition of “little tables” three times consolidates this sentiment. The word “little” is mentioned seven times in three pages and use of other words such as “subterranean” and “gluttonously” strengthen the feeling that Clarissa is about to embrace change because she is no longer a victim of the superficialities and pomp of society. However, the culmination of Clarissa’s self-realisation is not until her reflection on the old lady during her party. The reader can only be fully aware of Clarissa’s realisation once she herself compares her life to that of the lady and realises herself the implications of this comparison.Even before the party Clarissa shows signs of moving away from her past. The past for Clarissa becomes ever increasingly muted, indefinite and speculative. She continually thinks, “was that it?” and “he must have said it” indicating she has moved on from her past. Furthermore, as Clarissa becomes more aware of the fact that she is a casualty of society’s rules, Virginia Woolf’s description of her becomes more in tune with her surroundings. For instance, at the beginning of the novel we are presented with a “very white” lady, who has been through “illness” and this contrasts strongly with the “masses of carnations” and “bunches of lilac” in the florists as well as the “whirling young men and laughing girls” in the park. Her description is almost the antithesis of the surroundings she puts herself in and the month . In contrast, by the end of the novel, she is described with words such as “passionately” and “devoted” suggesting a tendance in Clarissa towards real emotion rather than keeping up appearances in the way she used to.Furthermore, Septimus Warren-Smith is symbolic of a tendency away from social values in Mrs Dalloway’s society. Although ‘apparently’ insane due to shell shock he has a greater understanding of the real values of humanity than most of the other characters and is not under the same “profound illusion”. His assertions on Shakespeare, although wrong, (“how Shakespeare loathed humanity”) have been thought through properly and this is indicated by the fact he actually reads the plays in contrast to both Richard’s and Peter Walsh’s flippant comments on Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. Furthermore, unlike the other main characters, his level of self-realisation is far greater. He accepts he is “too weak to kill himself” and understands he cannot entirely “feel” and that he could only “reason”. He avoids a lacquer of ‘social varnish’ to hide these apparent imperfections. He has no time for the same materialistic sentimentality Clarissa shows when she says, “she had a passion for gloves” and in stark contrast “ices chocolates, sweet things had no relish on him”. Ironically Septimus is far more balanced and genuinely more insightful than his ‘sane’ counterparts and his name Septimus Smith, combining an old antiquated, rarely heard name with perhaps the most common English surname, helps to consolidate this feeling of balance and sincerity.Septimus also has a great deal of real insight into the superficiality of others. He recognises Holmes for what he really is; “a brute with red nostrils” and repeatedly hints at his initial assertion that “once you stumble human nature is upon you”. Septimus clearly understands Reiza’s comment that the “English cannot feel” more fully than she would ever be able to. He is the only character to really “implore the gods” and he has a religious and spiritual depth to him none of the other characters could boast of. His friendship with Evans is deep and heartfelt, proven by Septimus’ mention of his name on forty six different occasions and the war they shared together is mentioned directly by Septimus on thirteen different occasions. This contrasts strongly with Clarissa’s rather false conversations with her like minded ‘society friends’. The depth and honesty in Septimus’ public emotions are exhibited by the dynamic descriptions of Septimus’ many range of emotions. He is “laughing”, “shouting” and “shy”. Countless other descriptions such as these create a colourful character who does not hide behind the correct etiquette vital to society life and perhaps this is why he is ousted somewhat by London society. Although ultimately he is a victim due the fact that he is pressured into suicide, we feel he is no longer a victim. This is because his suicide is one final act of control, allowing him to choose how and when he dies rather than life surrounding him dictating his demise.However, it is when Clarissa hears news of Septimus’ death that we realise fully she is no longer going to continue to be a victim of her surroundings and this is because she directly compares herself to Septimus.”She felt somehow very like him the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”This shows clearly that Clarissa has realised the problems of her current lifestyle. Furthermore, the inclusion of Big Ben with an extremely poetic and meaningful description brings the three major strands of the realisation of superficiality together. Connecting them and for a brief “moment” we see that change, although discrete, has been present and will continue to preside in Mrs Dalloway’s society bringing about further change.Furthermore Septimus echo’s Clarissa’s soundbyte taken from Cymbeline,”Fear no more the heat o’ the sun Nor the furious winter’s rages.”When he says before his death “Fear no more says the heart in the body; fear no more.” The similarity of these lines, which are important to both characters (Clarissa because she repeats hers and Septimus due to the fact it is spoken soon before his imminent death) suggests that the pair have similar perspectives. It also suggests that perhaps Mrs Dalloway is beginning to realise Septimus’ view that they are all casualties of the class system in London and that change from this has and must continue to come.Ultimately, the enigmatic last line of the novel, “For there she was”, sums up Clarissa’s situation. The use of the perfect historic rather than the present, which is predominant over the concluding pages of the novel, makes this phrase stand out. The phrase is almost questioning and suggests to the reader that Clarissa is beginning to see the shallowness of her life in London. Most significantly, this last phrase invites the reader to question if the other characters are “there”. The significance of the stream of consciousness style then becomes important. Through a continually changing narrator we can examine the attitudes of other characters and finally understand that each character is experiencing the effects of the superficiality in London society to different extents and are therefore “there” to different extents.
Misconceptions and Mistaken Treatments in Mrs. Dalloway
The horrors of war have, for centuries, tormented the human soul. Some veterans are able to re-acclimate themselves to normalcy, while others are crippled by trauma due to the gore and violence. In Virginia Woolf’s novelistic masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Smith endured the gruesome events of World War I, but returned home severely scarred. Because of the lack of modern medical and psychiatric knowledge that society has today, Septimus’ battle scars killed him in the end. If his caregivers, Holmes (a physician) and Bradshaw (a psychiatrist), had been more attuned to the true nature of his mental incapacities, and had possessed modern, competent medical knowledge, Septimus might not have ended his life.
Let’s first examine Holmes. Ignorance seems to be his basic nature; in fact, he sees distraction as a cure-all. He encourages Septimus to listen to music, play golf, and/or take sleeping pills (2206). He also recommends that Septimus take up some new hobbies, but discourages over-excitement. These distractions may stifle the symptoms temporarily, but they do not help solve the problem. Externally, Septimus is perfectly healthy, so Holmes thinks that there is “nothing whatever seriously the matter but was a little out of sorts” (2167) or “in a funk” (2238). He does not look past exterior ailments into the internal to understand the real issues. If he had, Septimus might have recovered. Holmes is generally dismissive of not only Septimus’ condition, but also other similar conditions as well. He sees no logical cause for conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, dreams, and headaches. He thinks that people mostly have control over their health (2206), so perhaps he believes that we are only as sick as we let ourselves be.
Bradshaw has a different approach. As a psychiatrist, he has far more knowledge of the mind than of the body, which is Holmes’ field of “expertise.” Since he is a psychiatrist, he knows that he is better equipped to treat Septimus than Holmes is. He disagrees with some of the treatment ideas that have been offered, specifically the suggestion to take bromide, because, for him, sedating someone doesn’t solve anything. He disagrees not simply with Holmes, but with physicians in general. “It took half his time to undo [their] blunders. Some were irreparable” (2209). Suicide is, tragically, a circumstance that is irreversible yet may result from such seemingly casual “blunders”.
Bradshaw proposes a treatment plan that he believes is better than Holmes’ solution. He discourages over-excitement and thinks that Septimus should be relocated to a home in the country for a few months to rest. The only companions he would be allowed are nurses, with an occasional visit from Bradshaw himself because apparently, “‘[t]he people we are most fond of are not good for us when we are ill’” (2237). These premises, however, are highly suspect. This sort of plan certainly did no good for the narrator and protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Being surrounded by the care and support of loved ones should be a necessity in any treatment plan. To make the healing process progress more smoothly, family members need to have a complete understanding of the circumstances.
Bradshaw’s understanding of Septimus’ incapacities is, of course, in many ways sympathetic. He does see the internal concerns and is sensitive to them. “[H]e never spoke of ‘madness’; he called it not having a sense of proportion” (2209). Apparently, he has a greater awareness of the realities of depression than Holmes. That said, it is ironic that Rezia, perhaps the person closest to Septimus, likes Holmes, a man who is unaware of the seriousness of Septimus’ condition, and dislikes Bradshaw, who seems much more aware (2207 and 2211). Like Holmes, she must not have a full grasp on her husband’s condition because of her lack of knowledge in that area.
Neither of the caregivers’ suggested treatment plans appears to provide enough hope for Septimus. Their treatments encourage Septimus to try to forget about his problems instead of bringing them into the light to thoroughly examine them. Both of them tell him to disregard himself. Bradshaw says, “[t]ry to think as little about yourself as possible” (2210); Holmes advises him to “take an interest in things outside himself” (2167). Yet veterans should think of themselves as much as possible; how else would they be able to fully recover? Talking openly about one’s insecurities helps lift the burden.
Neither Holmes nor Bradshaw ever wanted to talk in depth about Septimus’ witnessing of the death of his commanding officer, Evans, or about his other experiences during the war (at least, that’s the impression left by Woolf’s narration). If Holmes and Bradshaw had been more inquiring, Septimus might have been able to live the rest of his life. Instead, their misconceptions drove Septimus to his self-inflicted demise for reasons that Holmes himself “could not conceive” (2239).
An Unlikely Pair: The Comparative Consequences of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway
In lieu of an action-packed or scandalous plot line, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway takes a more subtle and psychological mode to ensnare its reader, one of course meant to depart from the strict Victorian and Edwardian novels that preceded it. This modernist form of narration, which pays much more attention to the inner-workings of character than to the construction of a typical plot, takes into account the inherent subjectivity of audience. To expand, Woolf, in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” opposes Arnold Bennett’s belief, “that is only if the characters are real that the novel has any chance of surviving,” by asking her reader to consider, “what is reality?” (Woolf, 749). In her opinion, there is no one true reality, but rather infinite ones that are defined by the subjective interpretations of the individual: “A character may be real to Mr. Bennett and quite unreal to me. For instance, in this article he says that Dr. Watson in Sherlock Homes is real to him: to me, Dr. Watson is a sack stuffed with straw, a dummy, a figure of fun (749).” This emphasis on subjectivity—and its consequential inattention to objective reality—no doubt comes to fruition in Mrs. Dalloway, in which Woolf allots each character his or her own psychological nuances and personal histories that necessarily affect and influence his or her own perceptions of external stimuli, ultimately proffering the reader with no real reality and in so doing lionizing the anti-realism that underscores the novel at hand.
To this end, Woolf punctuates Mrs. Dalloway with constant and abrupt shifts in narrative perspective whereby passing moments are elongated for pages in which a seemingly inconsequential external stimulus triggers a thought or memory in a character that then triggers another thought and so on and so forth, until she has delivered her reader a thorough exposition of that character’s mind. Several years before publishing the novel, Woolf wrote in her journal, “Mrs. Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side…” (Woolf, A Writer’s Diary). Given this binary, it would be easy to cast Clarissa Dalloway as the “sane” and Septimus Warren Smith as the “insane;” and indeed, such a perception is easily supported by context: Clarissa is a member of London high-society who, though plagued by regrets, has lead a relatively easy life, whereas Septimus is a WWI veteran suffering from shell-shock and its accompanying hallucinations and suicidal ideations. Stark as it may be, this contrast in background is by no means Woolf’s invitation to the reader to value one character over the other; such is to say, she is not setting the quotidian troubles of London high-society against the grander psychological and physical impacts of WWI in an attempt to deride the former, but rather she is opposing them in a delicate effort to communicate the equality of the human experience. In fact, one could argue that Woolf has positioned these two characters so far apart on the social spectrum to hyperbolically communicate the inconsequentiality of this very spectrum; indeed, madness, and ultimately death, do not discriminate based on status. To Woolf, it matters not whether one’s troubles stem from choosing flowers or attending parties, or from shell shock; all that matters is that one is troubled, that one is human, and through this does the comparison of Clarissa to Septimus yield its most salient consequence.
At the novel’s beginning, the disparities between Clarissa and Septimus—between the sane and the insane, as it were—are outstanding, rendered especially clear by their interactions with the outside world and their internal musings on the nature of death. Indeed, Woolf introduces Clarissa to the reader as she makes the infamous declaration to “buy the flowers herself” (Woolf, 3), a decision that leads her out of her house and into the busy streets of London, during which journey she seems externally placid and, by all accounts, normal: “’Good-morning to you, Clarissa!’ said Hugh, rather extravagantly, for they had known each other as children. ‘Where are you off to?’ ‘I love walking in London,’ said Mrs. Dalloway. ‘Really it’s better than walking in the country’” (5-6). Such an exchange, in which Clarissa demonstrates a capacity to assimilate and, at least for a moment, to shroud her internal instability in cordiality, is a far cry from her later ruminations, “She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (8). Here, the mention of “taxi cabs,” and of the omnibuses in Picadilly that galvanized these thoughts a few sentences prior, represents the public sphere in which Clarissa successfully exists, whereas her feelings of solitude represent the private sphere, in which her existence is plagued by constant self-doubt and regret. In spite of this ongoing battle between public and private, Clarissa absolutely possesses the ability to control her internal demons, repressing them when society requires it of her, but, external regularity notwithstanding, these demons still reign within.
By contrast, Septimus lacks Clarissa’s ability to master her external world and to seamlessly exist within it, as every visual or aural experience launches him further into the recesses of his delusive mind. Heeding the advice of her husband’s psychiatrist, Dr. Holmes, that Septimus “take an interest in things outside of himself” and “notice real things” (21-25), Lucrezia attempts to focus his attention elsewhere—in this instance, on Regent’s Park—so as to distract him from internal darkness with external beauty. For Septimus, though, concentration on the external achieves the opposite of Dr. Holmes’s desired effect, consistently pushing him further and further into himself until, “He would shut his eyes; he would see no more” (22). Pleasant as an image of trees flowing in the wind may be, Mrs. Dalloway knows no objective reality such as this, and so presents them through Septimus’s subjective perception of them, an overwhelming one that causes him to close his eyes and thereby to remove himself from the external world, ultimately leaving him even more vulnerable to the hallucinatory powers of his shell-shocked mind. With this, Septimus demonstrates his greater inability to exist outside of himself, for his madness poisons his perception and casts darkness over all that he sees.
While the two characters differ greatly in their interactions with the world around them, Woolf separates them further through their contrasting opinions on the nature of death. Insofar as it is contextualized in the novel, death had never been more prominent in England, the national death tolls of which were massive in WWI, and so it stands to reason that Woolf would tackle it here. To Clarissa, who lacks Septimus’s first-hand, visceral experience, death is a necessary reality that comes with life: Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all of this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow, in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived…she being part, she was positive, of the tress at home; of the house there… (9) Here, Clarissa values death not only because it is inevitable in the process of life, but also because it perpetuates one into a greater, unconfined existence. Death, then, becomes an omnipresent and looming specter that links all humans together, weaving in its wake an ever-growing and infinite web of human experience that offers refuge for both the living and the dead.
Still, it should be made clear that Clarissa’s musing here reflects nothing more than an acceptance of death and decidedly not an embrace of it. Slight as this distinction may be, it is a crucial one, especially when cast in the context of Septimus’s various declarations of suicide. If Clarissa’s passive cooperation in death is understood as sanity, then Septimus’s active participation in it must necessarily be understood as insanity, and, in turn, the two characters themselves understood as critical poles, the comparison of which yielding insight unto the greater human existence. For instance, whereas Clarissa’s outlook on death sees her as a part of a greater whole, Septimus’s shell shock and the feelings of social detachment it instills in him render his perspective much more self-centered: Look the unseen bade him, the voice which now communicated with him who was the greatest of mankind, Septimus, lately taken from life to death…. suffering for ever, the scapegoat, the eternal sufferer, but he did not want it… (25) Whereas Clarissa views her death as a means to unite herself with her world, Septimus views his own as an oddly sacrificial means to cleanse society of the burden that is himself, that is his inability to assimilate or to feel.
Further, the narrator’s depiction of him as an unwilling “scapegoat” expresses a disconnect between Septimus and the image of himself that he wishes to destroy; to clarify, his regular, conscious mind—Septimus man—seems to have merged inseparably and accidentally with the societal projection of him—Septimus soldier—a fusion that leaves him with no choice but to kill himself. As Septimus’s broader feelings of isolation have caused him to perceive himself as an enemy of his race, his suicide becomes a ritualized and necessary sacrifice for the greater good of mankind. And indeed, Woolf casts Septimus’s suicide as one without agency, having been influenced not from within, but from without. As Dr. Holmes’s visits persist and his diagnoses remain the same—“there was nothing whatever the matter” (90)—Septimus’s condition continues to deteriorate past the threshold of bearableness and he clings further and further onto the belief that he is an enemy of human nature, whom he identifies with Dr. Holmes as, “the repulsive brute, with the blood red nostrils” (92). Now totally convinced of his desertion, Septimus hears the whole world clamor, “Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes,” to which he asks, “But why should he kill himself for their sakes?” (92). And so, he concedes victory to human nature, which has triumphed over its sacrificial victim: “He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings—what did they want?…Holmes was at the door. ‘I’ll give it to you!’ he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings (149).” As Dr. Holmes is coming to collect Septimus to send him to a home in the country for further treatment, Septimus literally “gives” up his physical body, preserving his self through his fateful defenestration in a final declaration of autonomy that actualizes Woolf’s concern with the soul over the body (Woolf, 740). Both a surrender and a victory, for he neither wants to be committed to a home nor to die, his suicide is here related as an unfortunate necessity of his circumstance, the only means through which he can maintain agency over his soul.
Powerful as the aforementioned differences in character are, Woolf subtly punctuates them with similarities, which foreshadows the ultimate connection that she will draw between them in the novel’s closing scenes. These similarities, it should be noted, can be observed from the novel’s onset, at which point they are largely superficial, confined to the two’s similarly avian appearances and fondness of Shakespeare (10-14). Soon thereafter, though, the similarities bleed into character, as each of them expresses their respective feelings of isolation and solitude in spite of companionship. Once he sees that Rezia’s wedding ring has fallen off, Septimus thinks, “Their marriage was over, he thought, with agony, with relief. The rope was cut; he mounted; he was free, as it was decreed that he, Septimus, the lord of men, should be free; alone…” (67). To Septimus, marriage represented the necessity to act normal, so with its perceived dissolution he is freed of that oppressive burden, finally able “to hear the truth, to learn the meaning…” (67), without worrying for Rezia. In the same vein, Richard’s general absence in Clarissa’s marriage to him allows her the freedom of “independence” and “self-respect” (120) that may not have been enjoyed had she married someone more involved, like Peter Walsh would have been (10). In addition to these, perhaps the most crucial similarity is that of sexual repression, for which both characters have a clear proclivity. With Clarissa, repressed sexuality comes in the form of nostalgia for a past lesbian relationship with Sally Seton, with whom she fell in love as a girl. Before divulging the details behind their relationship, Clarissa first admits that she cannot resist “sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman…,” which makes her feel, “a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion…which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores” (32). Here, the vaginal imagery is blatant, though never explicit, meant to express Clarissa’s lesbian tendencies, which are soon thereafter brought to a head in Clarissa’s description of her kiss with Sally as “most exquisite moment of her whole life” (35). But, given social constraints, Clarissa could never have really actualized her feelings for Sally or vis-a-versa, and so she remains a distant memory, a phantom of youth that has long been locked away.
Though less obvious than Clarissa and Sally’s relationship, Septimus may have had his own homosexual experiences during WWI with Evans, the officer and friend who now haunts his hallucinations. With his impressive time in the trenches, Septimus “drew the attention, indeed, the affection of [Evans],” and together they formed a relationship akin to “two dogs playing on a hearth-rug” (86). However, it was not to be and Evans dies just before the Armistice, with which Septimus’s true repression begins: “Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognizing that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably. The war had taught him. It was sublime” (86). In this display of masculine and soldierly composure, Septimus feigns the apathy that would soon thereafter come to undo him. Indeed, the War and its expectations of masculinity force Septimus to repress not only those homosexual feelings towards Evans, but also his capacity to feel at all, resulting in the unceasing hallucinations of Evans and his broader inability to assimilate. Having established these similarities, Woolf has laid herself a foundation from which to draw a final link between the two characters in question, achieving this by intersecting their plot lines as Septimus’s suicide is mentioned at Clarissa’s party.
At first, Clarissa is angered by the story, viewing the personified “death” as an intruder in her party who necessarily dampens the mood, but, as she begins to ponder it, she finds herself amidst a vision of her own death, “Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt” (184). As Septimus’s death stands in for Clarissa’s, and in so doing allows her to experience death without dying, she reaches a clarity never before realized in her psyche: A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death. (184) Having spent her life repressing feelings for the sake of sociality, which necessitates “corruption, lies, chatter,” Clarissa now understands “the embrace” of death that is entirely incommunicable by the spoken word. This “thing” that Clarissa’s proclivity towards sociality has obscured, has been preserved by Septimus’s suicide, and for this Clarissa’s feels “glad” (184). As Clarissa views her parties as an “offering for the sake of an offering” (122), or a knowledgeably inconsequential gift, Septimus’s suicide is in turn viewed as the opposite, a gift from which the giver reaps no reward, an invaluable mode of silent communication. And so, Septimus’s death presents Clarissa with a means of catharsis that allows her, as Septimus had previously resolved, “to fear no more the heat of the sun” (186), a Shakespearian echo that symbolically seals their union.
At the close of her ruminations, Clarissa is grateful for Septimus’s suicide, not because of his death, but because of the strength she can derive from it: “He had made her feel the beauty; he had made her feel the fun.” Ending this sequence on such a positive note, Woolf realizes the value of Septimus’s sacrifice, for he did not die in vain. Ultimately, the unlikely connection Woolf draws between the upper-class British woman and the shell-shocked solider far exceeds character, meant, on a broader scale, to represent the interconnectivity of the human existence. As a vehicle for this message, Woolf elects death, which, in the novel’s final scene, she presents through Clarissa’s eyes as an illuminating and empowering force, not a morbid reality. En route to this conclusion, the novel grapples with the balance of the objective and subjective, making clear that the latter is supreme, a constant lens that filters the former. Death, however, transcends this dichotomy and exists as its own reality outside of the general realm of human existence, a message related through the bond it forms between Clarissa and Septimus. And so, in the end, the reader must understand Clarissa and Septimus’s relationship as a greater manifestation of the human experience; that is to say, different as we all may be, our fates are nonetheless identical, for we are all human.
Stoic Communication: Understanding Quiet Suffering through Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours
Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway uses themes that scrutinize the environment of interwar England, which inhibited the ability to effectively communicate one’s thoughts and feelings, because the cultural norm dismissed them in favor of keeping a “stiff upper lip”. In order to survive in this setting, the characters of Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours have means of escaping reality, in which they can ignore their feelings or temporarily alleviate the fear of their own mortality. The finality of suicide is presented to the characters as both an end to their problems, either via death or learning from someone else’s death. Lastly discussed is how Woolf’s inner interior monologue works to convey to the readers firsthand how difficult it is to understand other’s thoughts and feelings.
The Hours’ stories through three generations provides another outlet for explaining Woolf’s larger theme of escape through universal suffering, whilst visually translating the stream-of-consciousness style of writing. Mrs. Dalloway takes place after the Great War, which is still fresh enough in people’s minds that while there is a sense of gratitude, Septimus’ introduction as a character struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder serves to remind the reader that for many characters it doesn’t feel over; This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing. (Woolf 8) Clarissa recognizes that there is sadness in people, but because of the emotionally oppressive culture she grew up in, her conscious forbids her from breaking social norms. The reason this persists is because Clarissa is becoming a relic who still believes in Old England. The traditionalists hold onto the stoic, Old English method of dealing with one’s problems, and seek meaning in English symbols and traditions. However, this idealism is lost on the New England, since many of them had seen the tragedies of war. Septimus becomes disillusioned from the war, and now no longer finds meaning in English patriotism. These schools of thought create the environment which supports stoicism because where one class is watching their traditions crumbling, another is realizing that their traditions have never meant anything, and so a more comfortable solution of dismissing emotions has risen.
The Hours effectively translates this environment in its scenes depicting Laura Brown as the 1950s housewife who must survive in her time by repressing her emotions; It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear. There it is. No one’s going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life (The Hours). Laura’s choice of words shows the helplessness she felt in her time, because she wasn’t able to express her true emotions. It is this suffocating lack of communication that is mirrored in Mrs. Dalloway through Septimus’ inability to express his own thoughts from his PTSD. Both characters also have life partners that are not able to ease their troubles, and at times exasperate them.
The Hours demonstrates how the fifties ethos of conforming and being an active participant in the American Dream –while different from English stoicism- produced nearly identical results of people who felt to oppressed. It makes sense that in these constrictive environments, the characters look for means of escape. The methods they use in their escape is also very telling of their personalities, as suggested by Zwerdling, “Woolf is deeply engaged by the question of how the individual is shaped (or deformed) by his social environment, by how historical forces impinge on his life and shift its course by how class, wealth, and sex help to determine his fate”. Both Clarissa’s plan parties because the busy, tedious work means they don’t have to confront their troubles head on; it also gives off the impression that there is an attitude about them which says “I don’t have problems, I have my act together”. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa’s party planning also shows one of the last roles she has left in society. At her middle age, Clarissa has completed her motherly duties and because women of that time weren’t known for going back to school or returning to careers, she plans parties that allow her to be the center of the “web” of communication that occurs throughout the story.
One can also make the motherly comparison to the Clarissa of The Hours, who takes care of Richard in a maternal manner, and also plans parties to provide a means of communicating with old friends. Richard uses writing as a means of escaping and making sense of his traumatic childhood, whilst his mother is a reader, because her escape is through a more passive form of immersion. Their relationship as writer/reader is important because it also dictates their final method of escape from suffering. Richard’s role as the writer indicates his need to escape into a role in which he feels in control, something lacking in his childhood which in the end formulates his suicide. The writer must have a more hands on approach towards control, as is Richard’s suicide, whereas the reader’s source of control stems from first making the decision to escape, but then allowing others to take her on a journey, much in the way Laura flees to Canada. Peter Walsh finds his escape through his relationships with women, through his first marriage, in his memories of Clarissa, and then in his engagement to Daisy. Peter’s method of escape is indicative of his fleeting sense of security, especially after stalking Maisie Johnson, whilst comparing her to Clarissa, and then finding himself lost after she enters her home. He lives in a cycle of self-doubt, while seeking women who he believes will rescue him from himself. Woolf has created Peter in this way to say that these escapist methods are only temporary, and while they can lessen the burdens of stifled emotions and impending mortality, they are not the ending of one’s suffering.
It’s important to note the shared methods of escape from the characters of both the book and film, because it shows how suffering is universal. A character must commit suicide in order that Clarissa see the value of a life. Woolf then uses suicide, not entirely as relief from the pain of living, but so that the other characters can learn to live. Septimus saves Clarissa from herself, because of the lesson she takes away from his suicide. In The Hours Richard commits suicide so that Clarissa might learn to think for herself first, as the cause of so much of her strife is in losing herself to other people. The Hours is able to suggest the end of one’s suffering through another premise. The Hours goes through different time periods to show how each woman relates to one another. Three different women are brought together, not in spite of different cultures and times, but because their struggles are universal, suggesting that the true escape of one’s suffering is in each other. There is also an interesting act of kindness Julia displays to Laura after learning the news of Richard’s death. That this scene should occur so closely after Richard’s suicide implies that, not only is suffering universal, but that one should find comfort and kindness in acknowledging its universalness- when all are suffering one does not have to suffer alone. Woolf uses the inner interior monologue, which guides readers through the thoughts of each individual character, to show how difficult it can be to understand people.
It is first hard for readers to understand how they themselves feel about certain characters, as each character is thought of differently by different people in the story, creating the first wall of miscommunication. “Woolf illustrates the extreme beauty and complexity of the solitary mind, yet at the same time, she also expresses frustration with the struggle to communicate fully with others, to find a chink in the wall that separates one individual personality from another” (Coartney). The characters drift in and out of memories, showing how some of them have stayed the same, while suggesting that others have turned out for the worse, or in some situations better. These memories serve to distort the reader’s point of view, showing the many sides to one story. “… Virginia Woolf introduces memories of the past that by and large are fully evoked for their own sake and disengage the character from the present” (Rachman). The best interpretation of this in The Hours is in the bathroom scene, wherein Laura Brown is being cooed at by her husband, whilst she is in the midst of a mental breakdown. As viewers, we have seen the inner turmoil Laura goes through, and so the “affectionate” cooing by her husband comes across as needling. This understanding can only come about through the viewer’s inclusion to the inner monologue, which was Woolf’s point in getting through the difficult web of communication.
The themes of struggling to communicate, escaping an oppressive culture, and learning after suicide that occur in Mrs. Dalloway serve in explaining the ultimate theme, which is that all people suffer. The Hours is able to visualize these and communicates the ultimate theme through the use of different time periods, each showing an oppressive culture, and characters with the need to be heard. It is important to discuss the relations of suffocated communication between The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway because, while they both take place between different people, spanning different cultures and time periods, suffering is found in both stories. Woolf’s use of Mrs. Dalloway as a critique on the oppressive norms of her time does not go unnoticed by The Hours, as it shows how years after Mrs. Dalloway has been published, the struggle to communicate clearly is still a very real one. In keeping with Woolf’s desire to see Mrs. Dalloway as a critique of her time period, it should in the future be proposed as a piece of fiction which seeks to see people responding to one another in a more empathic way, with societies which promote effective communication, and not its hindrance.
Coartney, Stephanie. “A View through the Window: Virginia Woolf’s Portrayal of the Mind in Mrs. Dalloway.” Mckendree.edu. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
Rachman, Shalom. “Clarissa’s Attic: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway Reconsidered”. Twentieth Century Literature 18.1 (1972): 3–18. Web
The Hours. Dir Stephen Daldry. Perf. Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. Paramount Pictures, 2002. Netflix.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harvest Ed., Harvest Pbk. ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1997. Print.
Zwerdling, Alex. “Mrs. Dalloway and the Social System”. PMLA 92.1 (1977): 69–82. Web.