Characterisation in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
In Virginia Woolf’s book Mrs. Dalloway, a variety of characters with complex, unique personalities are brought to life. Woolf uses vivid imagery and poignant monologues in order to highlight and simultaneously criticize the social structure, political affairs, and economic state of post-World War I England. Many themes, such as the ones aforementioned, are displayed within the elaborate rhetoric Woolf uses to construct both the outer appearances and the inner thoughts of the characters, which often contradict with one another. Woolf’s intricate blending of each character’s juxtaposed identities gives readers a deep connection to the personal struggles of each character’s past and present. Although many central issues are accentuated throughout the book, gender norms are highly enforced. The main protagonist in the book, Clarissa Dalloway, is very much aware of the gender stereotypes that exist in her society. Although a very elite and powerful figure, her thoughts are consumed by being a perfect party hostess and ensuring that she stays within the boundaries of the gender norms of her society. However, it is interesting to point out that while Woolf elaborates on the social stereotypes surrounding femininity, in particular how women should behave in particular situations, those beliefs are constantly being challenged within the internal monologues of the characters. Although Clarissa succumbs to a set of negative stereotypes, she is able to trespass those prescribed positions for women. Through our journey with Clarissa Dalloway, we encounter several of her relationships that each serve to contradict the rigid gender norms of the patriarchal society in which she lives. Through her relationship with herself, Sally, and Septimus, we see that gender norms and the fluidity of femininity are the products of ongoing social interactions and relationships encountered throughout the play, rather than a defined, concrete set of principles.
Before delving into Clarissa’s relationships and their impact on gender stereotypes, her character must first be analyzed from the point of view of how Clarissa views herself. We are given small pieces of information about Clarissa in the introductory chapters that help us form an identity about who Clarissa pictures herself to be. The first sentence of the book states, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (3). This sentence is a noteworthy and crucial moment of foreshadowing into Clarissa’s independent and emancipated personality. Clarissa is willing to go out into the city and buy the flowers herself, rather than sending her servant to do the deed. This is especially significant because Clarissa can afford servants but instead chooses to buy the flowers for her party herself, a bold move for a woman of Clarissa’s status and abundance of resources. Woolf’s usage of this as the opening sentence of the book highlights the fundamental qualities of Clarissa’s character: independent, strong-willed, and fearless.
However, as Clarissa is walking through London on her way to the flower shop, we begin to embark on her first internal monologue. This is a turning point in which we see a very multifaceted Clarissa, who strives to be an independent woman yet is confined to the gender norms of society. Woolf says, “She could have been…interested in politics like a man…Instead of which she had a narrow pea-stick figure…But often now this body she wore, this body, with all its capabilities, seemed nothing-nothing at all” (10). Clarissa understands that her identity as a woman has prevented her from openly enjoying scholarly pursuits such as politics, and had she been a man, she would be able to immerse herself in academia. In essence, Clarissa scrutinizes herself when she discusses her potential and then refers to her body as the only component of her identity that society values. According to Bordo, “The body-what we eat, how we dress, and the daily rituals through which we attend to the body-is a medium of culture” (1990). From this unique definition by a feminist writer, we can see that the body does not only refer to a physical being, but a melting pot of ideas, culture, and apparel. By Clarissa viewing her body as “nothing,” she feels devalued of her culture, her appearance, and the way she chooses to express herself through clothing. To many women, body image is highly valued and respected, yet to Clarissa, it makes her feel even more isolated from society. Fundamentally, she views this large bulk of her identity as insignificant when she refers to her body as “nothing.”
As we begin moving deeper into Clarissa’s monologue, we can see that Clarissa understands that society doesn’t view her as an individual. According to Oxford English Dictionary, “individual” is an adjective meaning “One in substance or essence; forming an indivisible entity.” Woolf says, “Not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (11). When Clarissa views herself as Richard Dalloway’s wife, she is not an “indivisible entity” with her own “substance.” Rather, she is a woman confined to the barriers set by her husband. Thus, when examining the language in the context of the definition, we can see that Clarissa doesn’t consider herself an individual human being. Rather, she is deeply conscious of her role as her husband’s property. Clarissa is clearly uncomfortable with the animosity towards women in society yet succumbs to the negative stereotypes because she feels trapped in being unable to express her true opinions. She uses the words, “any more,” which can imply that at one point in time, Clarissa was an individual with her own beliefs, values, and opinions. As she’s grown older and been exposed to the more oppressive realms of high society, she has slowly been stripped away of her individuality. Although Clarissa does succumb to many of the gender norms present in Mrs. Dalloway , she seems to possess a rare knowledge and understanding of female oppression in society. She is able to thoroughly critique and confront the sexist ideologies head on, and visualize her potential if the “glass-ceiling” not been heavily implanted in society. Although negative stereotypes would indicate that women are complacent with being oppressed, Clarissa’s ability to understand the limitations of the “glass-ceiling” displays the intellectual capabilities of women in this era.
The way in which this oppressive society causes Clarissa to view herself propels her lesbian desires for Sally Seton. From a very early point in the book, we are told that Clarissa does not view herself as being physically beautiful. Woolf says, “How many million times she had seen her face, and always with the same imperceptible contraction! She pursed her lips…It was to give her face point” (37). We can see that Clarissa doesn’t consider herself physically attractive, as she has to purse her lips and manipulate her face in order to make herself seem “pretty.” She thinks that her face is too small for society’s standards of beauty and thus, molds her face by pursing her lips in order to make looking in the mirror easier. Clarissa’s battle with her physical features leaves her constantly oscillating between the physicality of her own feminine body and the repressive demands of society. She heavily envies Sally, who has an “extraordinary beauty of the kind she most admired, dark, large-eyed. With that quality which, since she hadn’t gotten it herself, she always envied” (33). Here, we see Clarissa’s true admiration of Sally’s beauty and aura, viewed as an untouchable object that Clarissa yearns to have but won’t ever be able to attain. She has dark, large eyes whereas Clarissa has a small, pointed face. Sally embodies rebellion and free-will, whereas Clarissa desperately tries to fit the preconceived notions of femininity. In essence, Sally personifies the beauty, energy, and confidence that Clarissa craves.
Shortly into the book, we are introduced to Clarissa’s unusual and complicated love for Sally. Woolf says, “Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole word might have turned upside down!” (35). When Sally kissed Clarissa, she felt the most euphoric she has ever felt in her entire life. This is interesting because in the 1920s, lesbian desires were not socially acceptable, and thus, Clarissa’s deep love for Sally carries symbolic meaning. Sally is everything that Clarissa isn’t: beautiful, open-minded, rebellious, and free-spirited. By Clarissa loving Sally, she is able to expose herself to the qualities that she always desired and, principally, live vicariously through Sally. Her sexual desires may be a way that Clarissa fights against the gender norms; she must choose between being a masculine female to survive in this patriarchal society, or otherwise join the majority of women who are silenced and oppressed in their behaviors. Therefore, Clarissa’s love for Sally in a time where lesbian desires are condemned can be a sign that she is choosing to engage in her “masculine” side by being attracted to women. Clarissa’s relationship with Sally can be interpreted as her embracing the more “masculine” side of her femininity rather than the “feminine femininity” that is defined and upheld by society. The differing degrees of femininity, and Clarissa’s ability to execute both with precise accuracy, displays the variable structure of femininity in society.
Another important relationship in the book is the contrast of Clarissa and Septimus Warren Smith. Although these characters never meet in the novel, they are linked to one another through intense emotional experiences. Their internal monologues seem to contrast each other yet are placed so strategically within the text that it is crucial to discuss the discourse of their relationship, although they never truly meet. They can be seen as each other’s opposites, at the same time as each other’s doubles. Septimus’ character suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after watching his friend Evans die in the war. In one part of the book, we are taken on an intense emotional journey with Septimus as he thinks about his experience in the war. Woolf says, “the flesh was melted off the world. His body was macerated until only the nerve fibers were left. It was spread like a veil upon a rock. He lay very high, on the back of the world. The Earth thrilled beneath him” (68). This powerful paragraph shows how Septimus sees his body fading before his eyes, a symbol that he is being ripped from this world in which he doesn’t belong in. According to Oxford English Dictionary, “macerated” is a verb meaning “Cause to grow thinner or waste away.” In essence, Septimus sees himself as not belonging in the world and therefore, his skin grows thinner and he fades away. He doesn’t want to be present in this world, which can be interpreted as a powerful foreshadowing into his suicide later in the book. He watches the “Earth thrill below him” because he doesn’t want to live in a place where he has to relive his horrific nightmares from war, so he escapes to another world where he feels less pain, and “watches Earth” from above.
We can compare this instance to another instance in the book where Clarissa is thinking about how alive her parties make her feel and how they make her want to stay firmly attached to the ground to experience the entirety of them. She understands that her days are limited and this propels her to embrace every second of every day. The grave contrast of Clarissa and Septimus provides a basis for evaluating gender fluidity in this society. Generally, women are thought of as being more emotional and thoughtful, which ultimately leads to depression and other mental illnesses. The stark contrast between Clarissa and Septimus’ characters displays how the text directly challenges gender norms and expectations. In this particular situation, Clarissa was a woman who was very happy to be at her party and felt invincible. On the other hand, Septimus, who was supposed to be a “strong war hero,” is unable to shut out his internal emotions and major depressive disorder. Because Septimus is a man, his mental illness was dismissed by Dr. Holmes, who had told Septimus’ wife, Rezia, to “make him notice real things, go to a music hall, play cricket…” (25). Since masculinity is associated with being able to get over problems and move on, Dr. Holmes failed to recognize any problems and was part of the reason that Septimus ended up killing himself. Upon further examination, the casual relationship between Septimus and Clarissa turned out to be an extremely vital method that Woolf used to target and challenge associated gender roles, proving that both men and women were capable of feeling the same degree of emotions and mental instability.
In conclusion, Woolf’s elaborate rhetoric and stream-of-consciousness writing in Mrs. Dalloway serves as a powerful indicator that gender stereotypes are not always set in stone. The enchanting use of interior monologues gives readers an unparalleled view into the complex minds of the dynamic and robust characters of Mrs. Dalloway . From Clarissa’s very first monologue, we can see how interesting her relationship with herself is. On the outside, Clarissa seems content being a housewife: she doesn’t work, she spends her days shopping and exploring the city, and lives to throw fancy parties at her home. However, her internal monologues give us a unique insight into the damage that this oppressive society has infringed on her. Clarissa is able to separate herself from society and deeply criticize the gender stereotypes that are prevalent in the social structure of society, and see how the oppression affects her psyche and well-being. Clarissa’s critical view on the patriarchal society she lives in displays that women aren’t complacent with the treatment they receive from their husbands and the rest of society. This is a very interesting and tactful way of describing women because, in the early 1920s, women had just been granted their right to vote and were still viewed as being less intelligent than their male counterparts. Mrs. Dalloway challenges these beliefs by displaying that women are intuitive, insightful, and able to critically analyze complex situations. Additionally, the varying degrees of femininity seen in the book prove that there is not a concrete definition of femininity and women are free and able to act upon their femininity in unique ways. Mrs. Dalloway also manages to shatter the female stereotype of being more emotional than men by including Septimus as a character who indirectly challenges Clarissa’s experiences, providing a stark contrast between male and female embodiments of emotion. Woolf’s way of illustrating the complexities of gender norms in post-World War I England while managing to shatter preconceived notions of gender is masterful artwork. It is no surprise that Mrs. Dalloway is considered one of the most revolutionary artworks on the twentieth century.
Bordo, Susan R. “Reconstructing Feminine Discourse on the Body.” Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing . New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. 165. Print. “individual, adj. and n.” OED Online . Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 4
December 2016. “macerated, verb.” OED Online . Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 4 December
2016. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Edited by First Perennial Fiction Library. New York, NY.First Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
The Theme of Flowers in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The Language of Flowers: Providing a Voice for the Voiceless
In Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, flowers tell the reader many things about Clarissa. She uses flowers as pawns in her artificial game of life. Clarissa gives flowers human features and develops human attachments to them because she has difficulty understanding people. In other words, her ideal life is created when she replaces the people in her life with the likenesses of flowers. When she finds human interaction to be too challenging, she relies on her flowers to provide her happiness and aid in expressing her feelings. The novel shows that she interacts with flowers and uses them to represent the people in her life that she may have trouble relating to. Having just made all these observations about Clarissa, it is crucial to note that these observations apply to the actual Virginia Woolf. She uses Clarissa to express emotions that she cannot express herself. Ultimately, Woolf insists that flowers provide a language for Clarissa to express her emotions and create her own ideal life while at the same time Clarissa is a pawn in Woolf’s artificial life.
As readers, it is clear how important flowers are to the overall theme of the book by how early they appear in the novel. The first line reads, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (3). Right from the start, Clarissa makes it clear that she does not want or need anybody to get between her and her flowers. As this scene unfolds, we see Clarissa is on her way to the flower shop, where she will revel in the flowers she sees. The first thing she does is buy flowers; as she enters the flower shop, “There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations […]” (13). This quotation shows how fascinated she is with flowers and how each detail serves a purpose to her. Each type of flower is important for her to mention. After this moment, flowers continue to appear throughout the entire novel. Most importantly, they are an immense source of joy for Clarissa, who treasures the beauty of everyday life. Because of the joy that she has found and the association that Clarissa has formed with flowers, she uses them to fulfill her “purpose” in life. She knows that they could not survive without her; they would wither away. Clarissa finds joy in the fact that these flowers need her to survive, as the people in her life do.
Clarissa gives a personal quality to the flowers which further emphasizes how she relates them to her own life. She describes how Miss Pym looks in the flower shop: “turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half closed…and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale—as if it were the evening” (13). Clarissa observes how similar flowers are to humans through her use of personification. She describes Miss Pym’s head turning “from side to side” while, at the same time, she describes “nodding tufts of lilac” and carnations “holding their heads up.” Clarissa gives the flowers similar actions to Miss Pym by giving them human movement and body parts. Essentially, I am arguing that Clarissa views flowers as members of her life. She gives them actions and emotions as well as describing actual people in her life in terms of flowers. This demonstrates the extent to which she has difficulty understanding people.
Along the same lines, Clarissa recognizes how important each and every flower is in the larger scheme of life as the people in her life are. One such example is, “So wholly admirable, so splendid a flower to grow on the crest of human life, and yet he could not come up to the scratch” (159). Furthermore, she recognizes that a flower is a living thing that is fragile and unique. The “crest of human life” is how she describes the location of where flowers grow. I interpret this wording to mean that a flower is not that far off from being a human. Moreover, it is just on the brink of becoming a living, breathing human life. Clarissa makes a point to bring attention to how she views flowers. They are very close to being human, if not already there in her mind. She finds it wonderful how similar flowers are to the people in her life that she finds it hard to communicate with.
In addition, Clarissa notices how significant each moment can be: “[She] felt blessed and purified, saying to herself, as she took the pad with the telephone message on it, how moments like this are buds on the tree of life, flowers of darkness they are, she thought (as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only)” (29). She notices how a simple daily task, such as taking a phone message, can be “a flower of darkness,” which is to say it is deceivingly beautiful in its own way. In addition, later in this thought she describes this happening as a “secret deposit of exquisite moments” (29). Clarissa has developed a skill to see things for more than they appear. This skill is very crucial to her development as a person because she needs it to be happy about her life and the way it is. She uses flowers to describe this normal activity as being extraordinary because she sees them as beautiful just the way they are. Clarissa recognizes how each flower, and each moment, can seem insignificant but are actually quite special.
Having just argued that flowers are important to Clarissa, let us now turn our attention to how another character recognizes her passion. One such example is, “But he wanted to come in holding something. Flowers? Yes, flowers, since he did not trust his taste in gold; any number of flowers, roses, orchids, to celebrate what was” (115). This quote is explaining how Richard wants to walk up to Clarissa holding flowers and say that he loves her. What is more important is that Richard knows that bringing the flowers with could make a big difference in Clarissa’s reaction. The beauty of the roses seems to get his point across: “he was holding out flowers—roses, red and white roses. (But he could not bring himself to say he loved her; not in so many words)” (118). Richard need say nothing because his gesture with the flowers speaks a thousand words: “She understood; she understood without his speaking; his Clarissa” (118). Their marriage, therefore, would be nothing without flowers. They provide a gateway for emotional communication between Clarissa and Richard that would not otherwise exist.
I have shown how Clarissa uses flowers to describe the beauty and fragility of the people in her life, but they can also be used to demonstrate how these people feel at their low points. Clarissa explains, “from a housemaid’s laughter—intangible things you couldn’t lay your hands on—that shift in the whole pyramidal accumulation which in his youth had seemed immovable. On top of them it had pressed; weighed them down, the women especially, like those flowers Clarissa’s Aunt Helena used to press between sheets of grey blotting-paper with Littré’s dictionary on top” (162). This quote is basically saying that Clarissa is being weighed down by the pressure to be young again. She uses flowers as a metaphor for life by saying the flowers are being squished in between these books at the same time that her youth is being trampled on. By elaboration, she is also being pressured from multiple angles as the flowers are being pressed “between sheets of grey blotting-paper.” Clarissa’s inability to hold youth in her hands is upsetting to her as she tries to compare it to the tangible object of flowers. This comparison helps Clarissa process her feelings and be able to understand things which she cannot touch.
Clarissa uses flowers as her escape. As an illustration, Clarissa is described as, “Despairing of human relationships (people were so difficult), she often went into her garden and got from her flowers a peace which men and women never gave her” (192). She replaces interactions with people with interactions with her flowers. Yet another way she humanizes flowers. At the same time, she gets something from flowers that people could never give. Clarissa can find peace in her flowers that, otherwise, she would never experience.
In summary, Clarissa makes sense of her life by using flowers to play the characters around her. I can bet that we all have something that we look to when we want to escape from our emotions; some people go shopping, read a book, paint, go driving, or sleep. Virginia Woolf writes as a way to escape her emotions and, in turn, creates Clarissa as another version of herself. Clarissa uses flowers to escape her emotions when they are too much for her to handle. They help her express her emotions, positive and negative, while still managing to bring her happiness. Clarissa finds flowers beautiful and ordinary, just the same as she sees the people in her life. Flowers provide her a language with which she communicates with others as well as gets closer to herself. Clarissa finds solace in flowers, as Virginia find peace in Clarissa.
Clarissa’s Transcendence in Mrs. Dalloway
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’s Criticism of Societal Conventions
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway criticizes societal conventions as it portrays the internal thoughts of its protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, and the various characters that surround her in post-World War I London. Woolf illustrates the mental repercussions of the war and the past in general through the perspectives’ of individuals from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences. The two central characters of the narrative, Clarissa and Septimus, initially could not appear more different. Septimus is a male war veteran suffering from undiagnosed PTSD while Clarissa is a female matriarch who dedicates her life to trying to maintain a sane composition. Arguably, the decision to make the male foil the one “diagnosed” with insanity might be a result of Woolf’s feminism but, with access to her internal thoughts, we quickly see that Clarissa isn’t as sane as she initially appears. Woolf juxtaposes Clarissa and Septimus to illustrate the inability to escape from societal oppression, except through death, and the consequences of choosing whether or not to sacrifice one’s soul in order to conform.
Both Septimus and Clarissa are trapped by societal subjugation; the two are victims of disingenuous relationships, emotional repression, a social pressure to conform, and the inevitable passing of time. Clarissa and Septimus are stuck in degrading marriages that lacked a strong foundation to begin with. While we are given obvious textual evidence about Clarissa’s affair with Sally Seton, Woolf suggests that Septimus may have also been in love with another man he served in the war with: Evans. Septimus claims that he is guilty of a “sin for which human nature had condemned him to death; that he did not feel. He had not cared when Evans was killed; that was worst,” (89) but he obsesses so regularly about Evan’s death that it is impossible to believe he does not care. Clarissa, too, is forced to portray herself differently to the world than how she feels internally. Unlike Septimus, Clarissa feels too much – about Sally, about what people think about her, and about the past. This homoerotic behavior and insecurity contribute heavily to the deterioration of Septimus and Clarissa’s marriage, other relationships and, consequently, their mental stability. Physically, the two are compared to birds: Clarissa has “ [the] touch of the bird about her, of the jay… there she perched,” while Septimus is depicted as “beak-nosed” (4, 14). This comparison to birds, especially “perched” birds, illustrates the desire in both Clarissa and Septimus to be free. Furthermore, Septimus commits suicide by literally flying out of a window, escaping the “cage” that is society. Septimus is repressed by his doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, who “swoops” and “devours,” as though he were a bird of prey (99). Sir William worships conformity, and prescribes Septimus means to “cure” who he has become with the intent of shaping him to fit the ideal, obedient social mold.
Clarissa and Septimus’s infatuation with death connects them while simultaneously illustrating that the only escape from societal oppression is through dying. While Septimus obsesses over Evan’s death, Clarissa is infatuated with the inevitability of her own. Both protagonists see death as a victory, though neither of them desires to die. Clarissa believes that death is an “attempt to communicate,” that it provides an “embrace” (180). She explicitly says that she does not pity Septimus after he has killed himself. Death provides a communication with others that Clarissa and Septimus do not have while they survive as outcasts. After Septimus kills himself, his wife, Rezia, “ran to the window, she saw; she understood” (146). This is the first evidence we have of Rezia finally accepting Septimus for who he has become. And, while Septimus claims that he does not want to die immediately before his suicide, it is a sacrifice he makes in order to hold on to his true self and his soul at the expense of his physical body. Additionally, Septimus and Clarissa reference the line “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages” from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline throughout the novel. The line is adapted from a funeral song that welcomes death as an escape from the burdens of life. While neither character physically or mentally fits a conventional societal mold, their souls are designed for nobody’s acceptance but their own. Thus, Septimus ironically has no place in life until his death, and Clarissa never truly finds herself or her happiness in the novel.
Clarissa and Septimus’s obsession with protecting their souls from the societal pressure to conform drives them to insanity. Through access to both characters’ internal thoughts, however, we see that “sanity” is entirely relative. Clarissa may have more control over her fears and emotions than Septimus but, as readers, we see that her stability is equally compromised. Through Septimus, an “outcast who gazed back at the inhabited regions,” (101) it is evident that insanity is a consequence of a lack of connection and a displacement from society. As follows, it is arguable that Clarissa is on the brink of madness. Clarissa feels “far out to sea and alone;” (8) she is insecure about the role that she plays in society, and claims that “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown” (10). Clarissa feels misunderstood and has no secure relationship to provide her with someone she can confide in; Septimus, ironically, wishes to be left alone. Both characters are obsessed with protecting the privacy of their souls but, while Clarissa compromised her passion and her soul when she married Richard, Septimus preserved his soul by choosing death. Septimus is, in this manner, reborn while Clarissa suffers from “an emptiness about the heart of life” (30). Septimus sacrifices his mind and body for his soul, but Clarissa sacrifices her soul for her mind and body. In order to be accepted by society, Clarissa sacrifices the happiness that she would have attained through pursuing her relationship with Sally for a future, while Septimus sacrificed his future for preserving his spirit. Both decisions illustrate the pressure and madness that social norms and pressure to conform inflict upon individuals. Clarissa and Septimus were simultaneously victims of serious battles; Clarissa suffered from an internal battle between whom she genuinely loved but took the safe road by marrying Richard, while Septimus took the dangerous road and fought an external battle, which resulted in a perpetual internal battle with his sanity. Losing people they loved made them mad, but losing themselves made them insane.
Our sanity is arguably the most important part of the human psyche, but the uncensored internal thoughts of Clarissa and Septimus prove that it is entirely subjective. There is no such thing as “the real world.” Clarissa’s definition of the “real world” differs from Septimus’s, and both of their perspectives are completely unique to the other characters in the novel. The “real world” is less real, and more so a combination of rules and inventions designed by man: time, social norms, laws, and morals, etc. While all of these every-day characteristics add routine and order to human lifestyles, they can also be the cause of isolation and madness, as observed in Mrs. Dalloway. The theme of protecting the soul, one’s true self independent of what is socially acceptable, illuminates the internal struggle between being truly yourself, and being the version of yourself that others have designed.
Mrs. Dalloway’s Impact on Gender Equality
The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed significant strides in the upheaval of gender bias and patriarchal standards. Women gained many more liberties, such as with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, and the first wave of feminism was at its golden age. However, gender roles, or ideals of how the binary genders should act, still had a strong hold over societal expectations. When Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in the 1920’s, she used it as a social critique of the strict gender roles in the time. The protagonists Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith both struggle to meet emotional gender expectations; however, only Clarissa can manage to hide her differences and remain a well-esteemed upper class woman.
When Septimus Warren Smith is a young adult, he volunteers for the army. However, when he returns it became clear that the war took a significant psychological toll on Septimus. His wife, Rezia, believes that “he was not Septimus now” (2350), recalling how he would “talk to himself, talk to a dead man” (2371). Septimus is showing signs of shell shock, a common diagnosis for a World War I veteran. However, such a disorder carried a complex stigma. Veterans showing symptoms of shell shock were thought to be showing qualities of femininity and therefore less of a man (Tomes). While Septimus worries that “he could not feel” (2383), he actually ends up showing more emotion than considered acceptable for a man, “cry[ing] out about human cruelty” (2410) and writing about “universal love: the meaning of the world” (2413). Rezia becomes embarrassed by him. She thinks it is “the most dreadful thing of all, to see a man like Septimus who had fought, who was brave, crying” (2410). This adds another layer of strain on their marriage. It leads her to even claim, “Far rather would she be that he were dead! She could not sit beside him…” (2349). Because Septimus cannot be a mentally strong man, Rezia becomes ashamed of him.
Similarly, Clarissa Dalloway struggles with her ability to fulfill the female gender role on an emotional level, worrying that she is not satisfying her husband. She claims that “she could see what she lacked… It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman…” (2354). Other characters have noticed this same absence of what they consider an essential quality. Peter believes that “there was always something cold in Clarissa” (2363)— a certain “woodenness” (2369). This quality of warmth that Clarissa lacks is a quality connected with a feminine character, and more specifically, a proper wife. This in turn leads her to the conclusion that “she had failed him [her husband]” (2354).
These two protagonists seem to differ in their abilities to hide the fact that they do not fit within their prescribed gender role. Septimus’s physical appearance points to his nonconformity. When he is a young adult, he wears a “pink, innocent oval” face and is often seen as too feminine (2381). His boss thinks that he “looks weakly” and worries about his health (2382). During the war, Septimus appears to have physically “developed manliness” (2382). However, something in his appearance leads to a feeling of discomfort. Maisie Johnson thinks that he and Rezia look very “queer” (2351), and Sir William Bradshaw “could see the first moment they came into the room… [that Septimus] was a case of extreme gravity” (2387). He cannot control his behavior in public, and that in combination with his strange appearance leads to his inability to hide his odd personality and lack of conformity with the masculine gender role.
On the other hand, Clarissa manages to hide her different nature from public eyes. Se has a “narrow pea-stick figure” and “nice hands and feet” (2342). She also thinks that she “dressed well” (2342) and impressed Peter at her party by wearing “earrings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress” (2426). These give her a very feminine appearance, allowing her to convince strangers that she fits the feminine gender role. She also puts up a fa?ade to hide her emotional inadequacies. While walking to Bond Street, she reflects on this separation of selfs:
She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being
No more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and
Rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway;
not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway. (2342)
Clarissa hides behind her married, public self. This Mrs. Dalloway is the “perfect hostess” that throws the wonderful parties (2342). She personally welcomes every guest as they enter, exclaiming, “How delightful to see you!” at every arrival (2423). She does this to uphold her public self, although she thinks “… it was too much of an effort. She was not enjoying it” (2425). Still, these parties are how she manages to cope with her struggle with gender roles. She explains that they are “an offering”, and although the characters do not understand what she means, it gives her comfort to think of the events in that way (2400).
In Woolf’s novel, she reveals that gender roles still make a significant impact in British society at the time, and shows that they have negative impacts. Although Clarissa manages to bypass social judgement and hide her nonconformity to the feminine gender role, both Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith struggle with fitting into the emotional expectations of their respective gender roles.
Mrs. Dalloway By Virginia Woolf: The Superficiality Of Social Conventions In Society
Virginia Woolf in “Mrs. Dalloway” mocks the superficiality of social conventions in society, keeping its individual members in constant effort to pretend, mask their individuality and abandon their individual needs.
The text raises questions of how individuals are shaped by their social environments, how historical forces impinge on people’s lives, how class, wealth, and gender help to determine people’s fates. “Mrs. Dalloway” was published during a time when British society was still recovering from World War One.
The difficult post-war times affected Woolf privately and subsequently affected her writing. ”Mrs. Dalloway” is her representative work that centers on the internal description of the characters while presenting social conditions of the postwar Britain.
The text takes place in the very volatile time period in Britain, portraying the idea that war is more than just a conflict on a battlefield. The war lead to the destruction of not only the physical infrastructure in Britain, but the social/political infrastructure that is vital in character relationships and analysis. Woolf showcases London populated by people of differing disabilities, socioeconomic statuses, and sexualities wherein each character occupies a unique position within the narrative’s classist, patriarchal, and heteronormative society.
Woolf eliminates any sense of an omniscient narrative voice by the constant ambiguity as to whether we are party to the narrator’s commentary or the thoughts of the central character. “Mrs Dalloway” offers a critique of Empire and the war, taking the state as the embodiment of patriarchal power, who even Richard Dalloway refers to as “our detestable social system”. Dalloway’s words reverberate Virginia Woolf’s intention; ‘In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system and to show it at work, in its most intense. ’”
“Mrs. Dalloway” offers a scathing indictment of the British class system. Woolf, through her novel and her characters such as Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith, Dr. William Bradshaw and Dr. Holmes, shows how complex structures of power can seize the people’s real identity and fabricate it in order to be appropriate with the values and norms of power.
In “Mrs Dalloway”, the British upper-class ignores the actuality of the aftermath of war and social events become a form of normalization for them to neutralize the existence of reality, giving them an illusion of fulfilment and connectedness. “Mrs Dalloway” becomes an extended social critique where the audacity and stateliness of the most prominent guests is mocked through the description of the epicurean Hugh Whitbread, the sophisticated Lady Burton.
Clarissa by inviting high members of English society who are the symbols of power, provides an appropriate background for madness to reveal itself, where the upper-class cannot help but find relief and peace in the deaths of working class people who have become free of all societal pressures resulting in Septimus’ suicide becoming a casual conversation at their party. Woolf mocks the inability of upper class English society to recognize the changing social and political landscape. Lady Bruton, a once powerful upper class individual faces challenges due to her old ways of aristocratic networking, representing the degeneration of old english society. Richard’s committees, Lady Bruton’s emigration project, Hugh Whitbread’s letters to the Times, are all the exhibition of the authority of ruling-class.
Hugh, an advocator of ruling class, functions as a symbol of all those who have inherited their social standing and who are protective of their privileged social standing. Woolf gives us Kilman as a symbol for all the despicable things people sometimes claim to do in the name of religion. Society includes a body of individuals who are in common geographical region and under the same political and cultural authority. Individuals have to conform to the norms defined by the society and violating these unwritten rules, is seen as abnormal. In Mrs Dalloway, Holmes and Bradshaw try to suppress this abnormality. Bradshaw views himself as one who helps his country by making his patients conform to his idea of sanity and secluding them from society. The characters of the doctors, Hugh Whitbread, and Lady Bruton as compared to the tragically mishandled plight of Septimus, allows Woolf to depict how exposed and ill-treated those suffering from mental illness really are by the doctors.
Septimus Smith is portrayed as a war veteran suffering from shell-shock, who finds frustration in his doctor’s prognosis and decides to commit suicide. Septimus believed that his lack of emotion was a sign of strength and courage. Woolf, through portraying Septimus’ life, indicates the prevalent insanity in London and the disillusionment in English people. His suicide becomes an act of resistance to the power of London’s social system. Septimus, through his madness, his death and life, unveils the truths hidden under the surface of society. Woolf utilizes madness to criticize the structures of English society with a sharp attack to the social system at “its most intense. ” Placing the doctor and patient together, Woolf emphasizes the fatal impact of society’s social structures upon people.
The world of the sane and the insane side by side: Woolf portrays the sane grasping for significant and substantial connections to life. Woolf in “Mrs Dalloway” showcases the breakdown of stable social categories and how the escalation of social roles to be performed results in an anxiety about the ability of the characters to “sanely” exist within a hostile social system, performing roles that do not adequately correspond to their identity. Woolf shares a ruthless observation of the social system, through Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith, who have both been have been psychologically damaged by their position in society. These two psychologically distinct and disparate characters, both try to establish a stable identity while struggling with patriarchal arrangement of the society and misunderstanding of mental illness. Clarissa’s fertility is the sole dynamic providing her with a function in this patriarchal society, leading her to face a psychological crisis as to her future role. Septimus suffers a similar crisis of identity as a victim of the society; fighting a war sparked by bureaucratic tensions out of his control.
Unable to reconcile his feelings for the England he left to fight for and the England to which he returns leads to rapid changes in his status and identity eventually claiming his sanity. Both Clarissa and Septimus suffer from the oppression of society; Septimus however alleviates his internal struggle in death while Clarissa is unable to find an exit for herself due to the ideology of class propriety to which she must conform.
Woolf portrays the conventional society of the beginning of the 20th century, where women’s lives were shaped by the patriarchal society, sexual repression and ideologies of gender. The society brings to light masculine normativity, which rules what is more convenient to their genre, where majority of men belong to the public sphere, possessing an active role within their society and most of women belong to the private sphere, taking care of the household or some domestic issues. “Mrs Dalloway” portrays a picture of a patriarchal and imperialistic society, where women suffer alone, have no individual identity, and are compelled to suppress their needs.
Woolf employs Clarissa as a vehicle for critiquing patriarchy and all it entails including class-based social hierarchies, gender bias, and heteronormativity. Clarissa’s decision to marry, in general, is because she is part of a society that enforces heterosexuality upon an individual. Clarissa’s love for Salley Saton, contradicts all norms of patriarchy and they ignore their desires because the only accepted female identity was the one that was accepted by patriarchy. Clarissa, in rejecting the potentially fulfilling relationship with Sally and marrying Richard, not only conforms to the expected ideologies of her society, but represses her homosexual desires for women. Because of her ‘place’ in society, Clarissa explores her sexuality and love for Sally only in her memories, while her marriage to Richard Dalloway represents superficiality and conventionality of the upper-class in the early twentieth century Britain. Septimus’ class and his mental instability differentiates him from Clarissa; however, they both struggle with the same oppressive structure-patriarchy that defines and categorizes men as much as they do women. Septimus idealizes war for it offered him the apparently straightforward and masculine role of defending idealized womanhood. His society’s expectations of masculinity destroy his ability to express his emotions. He sees phantoms, has visions, and is unable to convey his reality.
Peter Walsh exemplifies the oppressive effects of male privilege and heteronormative systems, by using Daisy Simmons to fulfil his preconceived idea of marriage. Woolf emphasizes the misconception of marriage as a social chain, criticizing how marriage imposed boundaries on people that psychologically oppressed them, leading them to even commit suicide. Clarissa, conforms to the ideals present in her society; Septimus, too, marries; but shell-shock prevents him from reintegrating into London’s social spaces. Septimus’s suicide highlights the fact that there is no way out of the patriarchal structure; there are only ways of coping with it.
The terrible effects of patriarchy is portrayed also through Lucrezia’s life who becomes a victim to the cruelty of the social and political doctrine of the English society. She silently struggles through Septimus’s insanity, enduring even the indifference of Septimus, for whom she left her relatives and country. “Mrs. Dalloway” acts a critique on female subjugation in the domestic sphere of hostessship where Woolf presents characters that are lost in their own being, they have to put up to the obstacles of the system that gives them an apparently viable reality. Woolf rejects the literary and linguistic conventions of novel-writing to dismantle the ordered nature of early 20th century society. Through this aversion to established literary practices, Woolf subtly proposes the need to alter the traditional rituals and structures of society, if its inherent problems are to be rectified. However, Woolf is never overtly or brazenly radical in her condemnation, refusing to adhere to one particular viewpoint. Many critics argue that the novels depicted by the technique of stream-of-consciousness cannot reflect the serious social problems and that “Mrs. Dalloway” is an apolitical and asocial novel about individual internal life as opposed to social life. Critics who do believe that the novel is concerned with social and political events and developments of the time, consider it a novel of suggestion, not argumentation.
Woolf’s social critique and political radicalism are more subtly formed and is expressed in the language of observation rather than in direct commentary since she believes it is the reader’s work to put the observations together and understand the coherent point of view behind them. As Julia Briggs indicates in Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, Woolf invites readers to explore the literary tensions within her novels: “Woolf intended her [experiments in writing] to bring the reader closer to everyday life, in all its confusion, mystery and uncertainty, rejecting the artificial structures and categories of Victorian fiction”.
Urban Setting Characterised in Music in the Tuileries and Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs.Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was set in London in 1923, five years after the end of the First World War. World War I, which took place between 1914 and 1918, had devastating effects on the lives of soldiers and civilians, to a degree never experienced before. Mrs.Dalloway takes place in an imperial, urban London marked by its technological modernity and lurid ideas regarding political and social order. The city of London functions as another character in the novel and its relation to the other characters is critical for the understanding of the personalities of those characters. In addition, the city setting steers the technique of free and indirect discourse. The city of London in Mrs.Dalloway as a medium for understanding of societal dynamics is comparable to the function of Paris in Manet’s painting “Music in the Tuileries,” which portrays the demeanor of the Parisian Bourgeoisie; furthermore, the use of the urban milieu as the focal point in the novel and the painting reflects the modern nature of both works.
Preparing for her evening party, Clarissa Dalloway wanders through the streets of London, observing her surroundings and reminiscing about her personal life. Clarissa Dalloway loves life, people, and parties. Crossing Victoria Street in the beginning of the novel, Mrs.Dalloway remarks about her love for London. Although Clarissa forcefully clings onto life with her parties and gatherings, she is ironically apprehensive about death. While she stands at the Park Gates looking at the omnibuses in Piccadilly, she thought about always “feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (Woolf 8). Walking towards Bond Street, she ponders about her own mortality and wonders whether it would matter if she suddenly died. Clarissa’s thoughts about death while joyfully walking through the crowded streets of London and gathering people at parties show her alienation. Additionally, while walking up Bond Street, Clarissa feels that she is not Clarissa Dalloway but rather just Mrs. Richard Dalloway, an extension of her husband. The fragmentation of Clarissa’s individuality is apparent in the modern world of London.
Mrs.Dalloway’s personal interactions with the city depict not only her personality but also her social status as an upper class, privileged woman. Mrs.Dalloway reflects upon the beautiful June day, “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; wrapped in the soft mesh of the grey-blue morning air…” (Woolf 5). The presence of the King and the Queen along with the English Lords place Clarissa within the British upper class society with affluence and tradition. Then, Mrs.Dalloway walks up Bond Street, a street with “its flags flying; its shops; no splash; no glitter; one roll of tweed in the shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years; a few pearls; salmon on an ice block” (Woolf 11). The bustling Bond Street, without even a single straw on its pavements, symbolizes the modern and urban streets and establishes the context of Clarissa’s surroundings characterized by wealth, patriotism, and the tradition of the British Empire.
Just as Clarissa’s association with her surroundings delineate her personality, the reactions to his surroundings of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran suffering from shell shock, reflect his insanity, apathy, and alienation. Septimus’ perceptions of the external world mirror his inner strife and mental illness. The sound of the motorcar backfiring draws his attention. Thinking that he is responsible for the traffic jam caused by the motorcar, Septimus is terrified and thinks that the world is about to “burst into flames” (Woolf 15). Septimus’ reaction to the motorcar clearly shows that he is suffering from shell-shock. Following Dr.Holmes’ advice to distract Septimus by drawing his attention to the outside world, Lucrezia forces Septimus to look at the aeroplane writing “toffee” in the sky. When Septimus looks up at the sky, he interprets the message as a signal for him and starts to sob from the beauty of the letters (Woolf 21). In addition, while sitting at the park, Septimus feels “the leaves being connected by millions of fibers with his own body” (Woolf 22). Septimus’ perspective of the world formed by his peculiar connections to nature shows his inherent solitude. As the day progresses, Septimus has moments in which he enjoys the exquisite beauty of life just as Clarissa Dalloway. Sitting at Regent’s Park, he watches the trees waver and “to watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy” (Woolf 69). Moments before his suicide, Septimus “did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot” (Woolf 149).
However, Septimus simply does not understand what human beings want from him and when Dr. Holmes entered the room, he “flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs.Filmer’s area railings” (Woolf 149). Septimus’ interactions with his surroundings and nature reveal his emotional instability and disillusionment. Failing to acknowledge shellshock as a legitimate condition experienced by returning soldiers, the London society and the medical community render Septimus to his suicide. Septimus epitomizes the isolation and the fragmentation of the individual in a modern world.
In addition to functioning as a character in the novel, the city of London aids the free and indirect discourse utilized by Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf employs the technique of the free and indirect discourse in which the third person narrator penetrates into the consciousness of the characters often by focusing on objects or places within London. When Mrs.Dalloway hears the motorcar backfiring while walking up Bond Street, Septimus who is sitting with his wife at Regent’s Park also hears the noise. Upon Septimus hearing the backfiring, the narrator shifts to Septimus’ consciousness as he relates the sound to the war. In another instance, when Lucrezia diverts Septimus’ attention to the airplane writing in the sky, Mrs.Dalloway sees a crowd of people looking at something in the sky and the narrator shifts to the world of Clarissa. Lastly, Elizabeth Dalloway’s omnibus ride back to Westminster connects to the world of Septimus. “Going and coming, beckoning, signaling, so the light and shadow which now made the wall grey, now the bananas bright yellow, now made the Strand grey, now made the omnibuses bright yellow, seemed to Septimus Warren Smith lying on the sofa in the sitting room” (Woolf 139). London links the two disconnected plots present in Mrs.Dalloway, one revolving around Clarissa’s party, and the other one revolving around Septimus.
Comparable to the function of London in Mrs.Dalloway, the city of Paris plays a central role in the “Music in the Tuileries”, painted by Manet in 1862. The painting displays a crowd scene at the Tuileries Garden in Paris. The attire of the crowd insinuates the presence of the members of the Parisian Bourgeoise. The men are wearing black topcoats and tall hats while the women are wearing bonnets, flowing dresses, and gloves. In the “Music in the Tuileries” Manet captures a moment of the gentility experiencing the urban and cultural events of the time period. The snapshot of the city of Paris and the members serves as a microcosm of Parisian Bourgeois life and reveals the sentiments of the people of the time period. The facial expressions of the painted individuals don’t indicate joy or happiness. Rather, the individuals seem to be focused only on their individual experiences and give the impression of detachment and alienation.
Likewise, Mrs.Dalloway demonstrates similar themes of social boundaries and detachment. The Bourgeois class depicted in the painting is similar to the class hierarchies portrayed in Mrs.Dalloway. Moreover, the alienation featured in the painting is analogous to the alienation experienced by the characters in Mrs.Dalloway. Although Clarissa composes herself in the front of the mirror and throws parties in order to maintain her social status and appearance, she is lonely at heart. Condemned to isolation due to the inability to feel and communicate after the war and suffering from modernity itself, Septimus commits suicide. Clarissa sympathizes with Septimus and interprets his death as a final attempt to communicate.
Although both Mrs.Dalloway and “Music in the Tuileries” explore the themes of anonymity, loss of individuality, and alienation, their mediums of expression, the novel and the painting differ. In Mrs.Dalloway, Virginia Woolf reveals the alienation of the characters through their consciousness, inner monologues, and interactions with other characters. In contrast, the painting is a visual representation or a transformation of the observations of the painter with regards to modern life. The modernist painting consists of a more ambiguous mechanism and is up to the interpretation of the viewer. In the “Music in the Tuileries”, Manet employs a technique of unconventional, deliberate blotchiness which leads to only certain figures being defined in the painting. The faces of most of the people featured in the painting are simple blotches of paint, dots, strokes, and lines. The lack of definition in the facial expressions of the people in the painting, a characteristic of anonymity resulting from contemporary urban life, reflects the loss and reduction of individuality. Another stylistic character is the lack of a clear structure in the painting along with an obvious flatness that causes the eye of the painter to shift from one corner to the other, mimicking the mobility and commotion of the city life. Lastly, the arbitrary placement of vibrant color patches along with the sense of light provided by the trees conveys the faced-paced motion of the city life and the ephemerality of urban experience. The painting provides a visual embodiment of isolation and loss of individuality within the Parisian crowd. The image of the modern city and city life is a central theme present in modernist work. The metropolitan life portrayed in Mrs.Dalloway with its innovative technologies such as the motorcar, the commercial aeroplane, and the ambulance establish the contemporary setting of the work. The intricate setting of London and the associations of the character with the city provide the framework for understanding the individual worlds of the characters. Further, Virginia Woolf breaks the manacles of conventionality with her use of free and indirect discourse that defies traditional, linear plot line by jumping from the consciousness of one character to another. The subjective third person narrative voice immersed in the consciousness of the characters provides the readers a deeper understanding of the minds and actions of the characters. Similarly, Manet defies the norms of the traditional painting by intentionally focusing on certain figures while blurring the facial expressions of the others, simplifying the people to almost a caricature. Both Virginia Woolf and Manet employ unorthodox techniques in their work that distort the uniformity of traditional works and inspire creativity and innovation in a modernist world.
Mrs. Dalloway’s Concept of Time
Virginia Woolf grants us an access to a new concept of time in “Mrs. Dalloway”, through which temporality-moment is investigated in two contradictory ways: one is continuous, deadly, dissolving while the other is placid, immortal, infinite; hence the combination of them has created a new type of temporality – androgynous time.
The deadly and dissolving moment, belonging to physical time, is fully represented through the Big Ben clock. The Big Ben clock, with its appearance throughout the novel, reminds people the time of the real world, the past that will never return “Big Ben struck the half hour”(Mrs. Dalloway, 119). And moments are like “leaden circles dissolved in the air” (Woolf, 2). For every moment appears from nothing then just disappears to nothing, leaving no traces (Kuhlken, p357), ceaselessly, like a raindrop diminishes when coincides with the ground, it does not seem so significant. However that insignificance is significant to everybody, including Clarissa, for every moment is attributed to their death. If even moment can disappear, then “did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely[?]”, thought Clarissa (Woolf, p.6). The disappearance of moment represents Clarissa’s own disappearance, for time can never return, and so is she.
In contrast to clock’s time is mind’s time, with its temporality placid, immortal, infinite as seen in the party Clarissa organizes. As in Kuhlken’s approach, the party is demonstrated as a veneer, hiding clock’s time behind the posture of mind’s time, and the guests are gradually dying (356); nonetheless, the party’s meaning to Clarissa makes it irrelevant. To Clarissa, a party is a revolt to physical time’s authority, as it denotes a moment, freezes the leaden circle or the raindrop and extends it to the infinity. She is not under the uniformity of clock’s time, therefore, has absolute authority in the party. Consequently, she obtains true freedom and true self, as she said “every one [is] unreal in one way, much more real in another” (160) – “unreal” because she and everyone are not in the same space-time anymore, and “much more real” because that space-time is her own space-time, where her internal self is shown.
But then such moment cannot last forever, for clock’s time will not stop flowing. That special moment collapses as Clarissa heard about Septimus’s death. Death – the representation of the cruelty of clock’s time, as in Clarissa and Cleo Enduree suicidal time, “[threatens] every act that is creative and alive” (Kuhlken, 344). Though death has undeniably robbed off her momentary freedom, it is also the catalyst that enables Clarissa to combine two contradictory temporalities into one, attaining a new space-time, a new life with each moment being special – androgynous time. As life only exists because death exists, and only through death can one become alive again.
That androgynous time, the combination of two contradictory types of time, is experienced by Mrs. Dalloway through a special event: encountering Septimus’s death right in the middle of the party, in her own space-time. Though first restrained by the clock’s intrusion: “What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party?” (172), she then comprehends him, somehow sees herself in Septimus and therefore experiences his death. In the conjunction between her own space-time – the party and the clock’s space-time – the old woman next door and the Big Ben Clock, Clarissa stands by the window – the border between two worlds, with the assistance of death, absorbs both types of time. The Big Ben Clock is still striking but it cannot impact on her, because the realm accommodates her now is not under physical time’s authority. Kuhlken describes this realm as “post-denouement, off-page, off-screen”, but such explanation is rather vague, for mind’s time can also be described “off-screen” to clock’s time, as there is no universal time for the universe (Space-time, p39). Instead of being segregated from physical time, androgynous time blends with it, creates a new space-time right in the realm of physical time and mental time. This type of time is still continuous, but every moment is not the same. The moment – raindrop falls to the ground, instead of diminishing, contributes to a changing, continuous stream, in which every raindrop is immortal and infinite, therefore, important. Consequently, Clarissa is vitalized in every moment, knowing that the past, now and future does not matter. She is reborn.
Through Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”, the concept of time is interpreted validly. Starting from just two opposite types of time: physical time and mental time, through Clarissa’s one-in-a-lifetime encounter, the readers are somewhat exposed to a new space-time: the androgynous time in which freedom of consciousness is available.
WORK CITED: 1. Virginia Woolf “Mrs. Dalloway”
2. Pam Fox Kuhlken “Clarissa and Cleo (En)Duree Suicidal Time in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Agnes Varda’s Cleo De 5 A 7”
3. Russel “Space-time”
Virginia Woolf’s Description of the Personality of Sally Seton as Depicted in Her Book, Mrs. Dalloway
“But this question of love, this falling in love with women. Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?”
-Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is perhaps one of the most seminal texts in the genre of Modern English Literature. Woolf is known for her brilliant narrative technique and intriguing characterisation. One such important and amusing character in Mrs. Dalloway is Sally Seton. This short note would attempt to explore the character of Sally Seton and look at the aspects of homosexuality and love, the notion of age and time, Post World War hues, femininity, the capitalist angle, and the modernist technique in the book with relation to Seton’s character.
Sally is introduced in the book in a flashback of Clarissa recounting her time in summer at Bourton with Sally, Peter, and Richard around 1903. Clarissa says the following about Sally at that time:
…she sat on the floor with her arms around her knees, smoking a cigarette…she (Clarissa) could not take her eyes off Sally… She (Sally) literally hadn’t a penny that night when she came to them … Sally it was who made her feel, for the first time, how sheltered the life at Bourton was. She knew nothing about sex—nothing about social problems…Sally gave her William Morris…they sat…talking in her bedroom…about life, how they were to reform the world. They meant to found a society to abolish private property…The ideas were Sally’s… Sally went out…picked flowers that had never been seen together—cut their heads off, made them swim on top of water in bowls…Then she forgot her sponge, and ran along the passage naked…(they spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe)…. then came the most exquisite moment of her (Clarissa’) whole life…Sally stopped…kissed her on the lips. (MD, p.27-29)
These lines from Clarissa’s past emphasises the significance of Sally in her life and in the book. Firstly, the underpinnings of homosexual attraction between Sally and Clarissa are found. Clarissa’s words resound her attraction and love towards Sally in her past which is juxtaposed against her lack of any such desire presently towards her husband Richard Dalloway. Ann Ronchetti even goes as far as to say that perhaps “Clarissa Dalloway is a repressed homosexual victimized by patriarchal cultural” (p. 164) It can be thus noted that Sally Seton becomes the identifying marker of Clarissa’s homosexuality who further reflects on her feelings for women because of her relationship with Seton, saying:Clarissa’s attraction to women extend beyond Sally Seton and stretch beyond the years they shared as young women:
It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of woman together. For that she could dimly perceive. She resented it, had a scruple picked up heaven knows where, or, she felt, sent by Nature (who is invariably wise); yet she could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as to her they often did, some scrape, some folly. And whether it was pity, or their beauty, or that she was older, or some accident…she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. (DM. p.26)
Furthermore, Clarissa’s relationship with Seton is often recounted as “representing a period of girlhood innocence that is sharply contrasted with the adult self who remembers this love.” (p.139). Clarissa and Sally relationship is often posited to be just an instance of childhood friendship that is pure and innocent in terms of its love or it is presented as the unruly phase of adolescence. Kate Haffey presents various critical approaches to their relationship:
Sally Seton is positioned as “the widely charming and reckless friend of (Clarissa’s) youth (Transue 69). And the love between the two women is described as “girlhood fascination” (Showalter 144), as “romantic idealism” (Transue 69), as a “love that may leave virginity and…purity intact”(Raphael 138), and as “unclouded by sexual masks and societal roles that often muddle heterosexual relationships” (Henke 135)… As Judith Halberstam states, “in Western cultures, we chart the emergence of the adult from the dangerous and unruly period of adolescence as a desired period of maturation (4)” (p. 139)
It is of import here to emphasise the theme of age and maturation from adolescence to adulthood that is reflected in the character relation of Sally and Clarissa. Both the women, had very different ideals and ambitions in their adolescence. Sally was a rebel and very progressive in her thought and she further inspired Clarissa to be the same, and they “they spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe”. Yet, both the women get married and assume socially acceptable positions in life in their adulthood. Sally becomes Lady Rosseter, wife of a wealthy man with five sons and Clarissa becomes Mrs. Dalloway.
This significance of passing of time and leading to a present that is juxtaposed with a past that was more idyllic, and Sally becomes the representative of Clarissa’s idyllic past. As Wáng and Xiao Lì purport in their essay “ Time and Love in Mrs. Dalloway” :
The passing of time is the central concern of Woolf…Big Ben is a hint of the significance of time all over the novel…Clarissa…and other characters are in the grip of time and as they age they evaluate hoe they have spent their lives. Clarissa…senses the passage of time, and the appearance of Sally and Peter, friends from her past, emphasises how much time has gone by…Clarissa sometimes wants the happiness of the past to continues, but she can’t reject the reality of the present. (p. 6-7)
Another reading given to the relationship of Sally and Clarissa is the aspect of Post World War England intrinsically works in Woolf’s narratives. The homosociality of Sally and Clarissa is seen to be an outcome of the time when the World War that lasted for five years obviously bought men closer to other men who they fought the war with alongside and also women closer to women who were left behind to take care of domestic issues. Certainly, “these two scenarios would have enhanced the complex bonding between man and man and woman and woman… Woolf … targeted readers who are post world war one survivors and they would have felt personal and emotional while reading this novel and Woolf has beautifully crafted this idea and splendidly portrayed it without any glitch” (p. 9) in the relationship of Sally and Clarissa.
In so far as femininity is concerned, in The Psychic Life of Power , Judith Butler argued a woman “accomplishes” normative femininity by rejecting same-sex pleasure. Butler further argues that normative femininity is maintained by emulating, without fully embodying, cultural ideals of femininity. In Sally Seton’s character this adhering to normative femininity can be seen. As her past self and present self are juxtaposed through the eyes of Clarissa and Sally becomes Lady Rosseter, Sally effectively forecloses her same-sex desire, fully “accomplishing” heterosexuality and consolidating normative femininity. This normalisation of her radicalism could also be seen as a result of how patriarchy forces women to adhere to societal norms of femininity. In the text, Hugh Whitbread, who can be seen as a patriarch for “he represented all that was most detestable in British middle-class life” (MD,p.59), forcefully kisses Sally when she has an argument with him over women’s rights and “insulted her”.
It is significant to also realise that Sally came from a relatively poorer background as Clarissa says that “she had not a single penny when she came to them”. Yet, Sally’s past showed how progressive her mindset was as compared to the upper middle class people and even in her present, at the party of Mrs. Dalloway, Sally is seen critiquing and demystifying the lot that was present around. Perhaps here Woolf presents a critique of the upper middle class British of her time as well. Also, the fact that Sally marries a wealthy man and presents herself to be the most happiest at Clarissa’s party could also indicate towards her being a victim of the capitalism that was taking over Britain and the world around this time.
Finally, this stark contrast in Sally’s past and present self could also be read as the unpredictability of human character and the not in that one could never fully understand a human mind. These issues were major concerns for the Modernist writers who grappled with the psyche of human beings and the elusive, nebulous nature of it, of ‘that’ which was beyond the comprehension of others . As Woolf says, the modernists “…has to have the courage to say that what interests him is no longer ‘this’ but ‘that’: out of ‘that’ alone must he construct his work. For the moderns ‘that’ the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology”
Thus, in Sally Seton’s character there is an amalgamation of various issues that Woolf’s narrative deals with. Woolf brilliantly portrays a character that acts as a foil too that of the main protagonist, Clarissa, both in the past and the present narrative of the book, which enriches the quality of the narrative.
Symbolism Exploited in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf, 20th century English novelist, successfully wrote and developed her stories with some of the most unique writing styles of the time. Through one of her most famous novels, Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf takes the use of symbolism beyond the usual. Frequently, symbolism is used to enhance or add to a story where as Woolf, on the other hand, utilizes symbolism at the forefront of character development. One of the most unique aspects is her constant use of nature as a symbol. Woolf’s symbolic use of flowers, water and trees play a key role in characterization of Clarissa Dalloway, standing as one of the most dynamic figures throughout the novel. These forms of symbolic nature allow the reader to shape a deeper meaning behind the character of Mrs. Dalloway.
Woolf opens her novel with “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (Woolf 3). Right from the start we have already developed Clarissa as a woman who strives for a sense of independence. As Clarissa enters the shop the descriptive paragraphs of flowers have already begun. The reader begins to develop her character’s strong and meaningful connection to the flowers that surround her. We get the sense that they give Clarissa a sweet escape from the reality of her life. That is, her life as simply Mrs. Dalloway. They expose her to the beauty and pureness she knows still exist within the world. All of her senses are taken over by the splendor of the flowers. “She breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym…”(Woolf 12). We feel as though Clarissa is set in a field of colorful and endless magnificence. As the scene continues she reminisces on her childhood that has fell deep into her past. She thinks of herself, running free in the summer air, picking sweat peas from the ground. Free to go anywhere as she pleased. Now, she stands confided within store bounds, picking among the options at hand. What freedom and serenity she once held. It is the flower that brings her back to life before conformity, before she became Mrs. Dalloway.
Mr. Dalloway enters his home while awkwardly handling a bouquet of roses he has bought for his wife. Clarissa takes the flowers and thanks her husband for the kind gesture. Clarissa could not help but notice his failure to say, “I love you”. “She understood. She understood without his speaking; his Clarissa” (Woolf 115). Here Woolf is using the bouquet of roses to symbolize the conformity Clarissa has created within her life. His Clarissa. She is his. Marriage has taken away her pride, freedom and independence. Woolf develops the roses as a symbol of the bond created between her and her husband. As Clarissa sits, questioning the meaning of her marriage she is constantly reverting back to the roses that stand before her. “…but she loved her roses…the only flowers she could bear to see cut”(Woolf 17). When you cut a flower, you take away their freedom to grow and live. They become constricted in whatever confinement they are placed in, symbolizing how she feels towards marriage. Just like the roses, she was cut from her state of bliss and growth. They were the only flower she could manage to see cut. Roses are supposed to be cut, displayed as a symbol of beauty for other’s enjoyment. Just like women are meant to be wives. They must learn to be bold and beautiful within their newfound confinement.
Water also plays a key role in the construction of Clarissa’s life. There are many important scenes in the novel that occur around bodies of water. During Peter’s surprise visit, Clarissa has a hard time not thinking about what is she has made of her life. When reminiscing on the past she asks Peter if he remembers the lake. “…the pressure and emotion which caught her heart made her muscles of her throat stiff and contracted her lips in a spasm as she said “lake” ” (Woolf 42). In this scene Woolf develops the lake as another symbol. The lake is just like Clarissa’s life. Water within the lake is free to move but, within its boundaries. As a child she stood on the outside of the lake feedings the ducks with the bread her parents would hand her. They “held her life in her arms” as she played around the lake, unaware of the dangers stepping in would create. Thinking back on this time makes Clarissa feel as though she has failed to prove herself to her parents. This is what she has made of her life, conformity and confinement. She sits sewing, with Peter by her side. Performing her duties as a wife while sitting next to one of the biggest “what ifs” her life has ever set before her. She wonders if Peter was the one that got away. It wasn’t until the night she was introduced to Mr. Dalloway that she was then floating around in a boat within the boundaries of the exact same lake, now constricted by the land around her. It was the night that she entered the lake that she knew she would marry Mr. Dalloway. It is almost as if her confinement within the lake with him represents her marriage as a whole. Not many places to go, not many ways to turn.
Many people believe that Virginia Woolf alludes to herself through the character of Clarissa Dalloway. It is interesting to think about how this may evolve the meaning of water into something a little more complex. Virginia Woolf took her own life by drowning herself in a body of water. Thinking back to the lake, which symbolized constriction of freedom, someone knowing Virginia Woolf’s tragic end may even come to realize that she never escaped from the confinement of the “lake” or water. It was here, that her life came to a complete and absolute end. It gives way to the unfortunate realization that Virginia Woolf ended her life within the same boundaries she had failed to escape.
Along with flowers and water, trees are another important aspect of Mrs. Dalloway that lend way to a meaningful insight into the character of Clarissa Dalloway. The frequent appearance of trees allows us to think about a deeper meaning behind this form of nature. Trees are a symbol of life for Clarissa. From the start of a trees life it is their roots, their beginnings that are the determining factor for where it is they will grasp on to and stay fixed for the remainder of their life. Clarissa feels as though her decision to marry Mr. Dalloway has made her life stationary. As she is one with Mr. Dalloway, she must learn to grow within the life she has been rooted into. Just like Clarissa, the memories within a tree are endless, lasting forever. Within a trees trunk, rings of memory are added on with each year, without losing distinction for even the earliest rings. Throughout the novel, Clarissa Dalloway is constantly reflecting on her rings, her memories. They are the choices she has made that place her exactly where she is today. Just like a tree, her memories never leave her. They are filled with every detail that she has held close to her for her entire life.
Water, flowers and trees stand as the foundation to the development of Clarissa Dalloway. It is out these symbolic forms of nature that a reader is forced to think of her figure on a much deeper level. Woolf is able to take very basic characteristics of the nature that surrounds us, and make some of the most complex and insightful connections to key figures such as Clarissa. The use of such symbolism is what successfully allows Woolf to build Mrs. Dalloway into one of the most dynamic characters throughout her novel. A reader could only imagine reading Mrs. Dalloway with the absence of such intense symbolism.