The Problems Of “Illness” in Society
The idea of mental illnesses is a concept that is still, even in this day and age, not fully understood by most of society, even though it is fairly common. In order to find an immediate “cure” we turn to countless doctors, psychiatrists, and even religious leaders, in hopes that they can magically make the illness just go away. However, without truly understanding the illness itself, it is very difficult to be able to help and actually treat someone with a positive result. Take depression for example, a huge part of depression is caused by low self-esteem. People suffering from depression genuinely do not believe that they are good enough or worth it. They may feel as though no one wants them around and just run through the motions, until they finally give up, afraid and alone. Society is so focused on constraining people into the perfect norm that they neglect to realize how that may even be the cause to some possibly severe mental illnesses, depression just being one of many. Due to the fear of judgment from our society, people suffer in silence for as long as possible, not revealing their mental weakness, if they can help it. Instead they put on a façade, faking happiness, suppressing their negative thoughts, which only makes it that much more overwhelming when they are pressured to be someone they are not.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Wolf, introduces the idea of mental illness and how society “fixes” the lack of proportion present in the people who suffer from them. The novel gives us a clear picture of a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged woman, who married into high society, as she plans a party, which is a hobby of hers. Simultaneously, a young war veteran, Septimus Smith, suffers from shell shock, a form of PTSD, and is trying to cope with his illness, aided by his wife Lucrezia and his doctors, Holmes and Bradshaw. Throughout the novel, these primary characters interact with each other as well as the rest of their society, providing us with a perspective on how they are influenced by those around them. As we move from character to character, we are able to aptly visualize society’s grasp on people inflicted with certain types and degrees of mental illness and how it has shaped their thoughts and influenced their actions, while observing their journeys, eventually leading to freedom from the phantasmal chains that drag them down. Although we imagine society as this invisible presence, forcing people to do only things that are deemed socially appropriate, it can also manifest itself as powerful people who have great influence on the community. Characters such as Sir Bradshaw and even Hugh Whitbread act as a manifestation of society, dictating what makes a person appropriate for this elite group. This in turn may worsen the sickness of the mind that some may already have. With other people around them telling them these mental illnesses do not exist, they force themselves to suppress that part, until it becomes too much.
Within the novel, the author also brings up the idea of proportion and conversion in regards to how society attempts to alter people to fit the norm.
“Health we must have; and health is proportion; so that when a man comes into your room and says he is Christ (a common delusion), and has a message, as they mostly have, and threatens, as they often do, to kill himself, you invoke proportion…”
At that time specifically, in order to be a prominent and respectable member in society, members must have a balance of the mind and body. Thus, having a mental illness was a prime example of being disproportionate. Conversion was the way of fixing these lapses in society. The author describes conversion as “feast[ing] on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace”. Conversion is the darker part of society, usually left unaddressed, especially at that time. It is the part that attempts to extinguish the unique personalities of members of society, even the ones who suffer in silence.
An accurate representation of society’s repression of mental illness is showcased by Sir William Bradshaw. He is the second doctor that Lucrezia takes Septimus to, in a desperate attempt to cure his lunacy. Bradshaw’s entire approach to mental illness is based on the concept of proportion and lack thereof. “To his patients he gave three-quarters of an hour; and if in this exacting science which has to do with what, after all, we know nothing about — the nervous system, the human brain — a doctor loses his sense of proportion, as a doctor he fails”. He believes that to be as good a doctor as he is, one must practice proportion, in the way he diagnoses, as well as the way he treats said diagnosis.
“Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered 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 …Sir William with his thirty years’ experience of these kinds of cases, and his infallible instinct, this is madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of proportion.”
His idea of what constitutes a proper individual may be very different from someone else’s’. However, because he is so powerful and influential, this is what people end up having to conform to. In this case, Bradshaw acts as the society so intent on oppressing its members in an attempt to create a uniform, seemingly perfect world. Septimus, as his patient, is forced to integrate Bradshaw’s idea of proportion into his life, just because his word seems to be the law, at least in terms of medical diagnoses. Septimus, before Bradshaw can make him a puppet, blindly following the doctor’s orders, takes matters into his own hands, choosing to end his life, ultimately severing Bradshaw’s, and in turn, society’s, realm of control over him.
But Sir Bradshaw does not stop there; not only does he dictate the perfect ratio that Septimus needs to be to be considered “healthy” and “normal”, but he also exerts his dominance over his own wife, Lady Bradshaw. “Fifteen years ago, she had gone under. It was nothing you could put your finger on; there had been no scene, no snap; only the slow sinking, water-logged, of her will into his. Sweet was her smile, swift her submission”. Although she wasn’t considered mentally unstable, her passive submission to his dominant personality was harmful to her mental health. She initially did not fit Sir Bradshaw’s idea of a proportionate human being. So, slowly but surely, he managed to exert his power of dominance over her, gradually altering her entire personality until he managed to fit her into the mold he devised for her. Sir Bradshaw’s command over both Septimus and Lady Bradshaw symbolizes the power that society has over its weaker members undergoing their own hidden suffering. Unlike Septimus, who ultimately took control from Bradshaw and escaped through suicide, Lady Bradshaw let her husband slowly strip away her personality until there was nothing left other than a shell following her husband’s bidding.
Moreover, when Clarissa meets her old friend Hugh Whitbread, she automatically knows not to ask about his wife, Evelyn, and her unspecified illness.
“Evelyn was a good deal out of sorts, said Hugh, intimating by a kind of pout or swell of his very well-covered, manly, extremely handsome, perfectly upholstered body (he was almost too well dressed always, but presumably had to be, with his little job at Court) that his wife had some internal ailment, nothing serious, which, as an old friend, Clarissa Dalloway would quite understand without requiring him to specify.”
They both seem to know that Evelyn is sick, yet they have a mutual unspoken agreement to not talk about it. Clarissa does not bring it up at all but just knows that Evelyn is sick. Hugh, like Bradshaw, is another character that believes in his own idea of proportion. His wife’s illness does not fit his image as a higher-class socialite that he wants everyone in his social circle to see him as. Instead of exerting his dominance over his wife like Bradshaw did, he just hides her illness under his extravagant and haughty persona, using the rules of conduct expected by society to his advantage, ensuring that her illness is kept under wraps. Although they have two different approaches to removing any sign of disproportion, both Bradshaw and Hugh have enough of an influence through society to repress their respective “issues” that do not fit their idea of a balanced society.
Furthermore, Clarissa, through her pursuit of status and affection, lets society suppress her so much, trapping her in a box of loneliness and constant longing for something more, that she finds it difficult to escape. The entire novel, she is dissatisfied with her life, blaming her unhappiness on herself and how to stop tarnishing her social image. “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together. For THAT she could dimly perceive. She resented it…”
She goes through various emotions that signify depression, feelings of loneliness, worthlessness thereby suppressing herself and using society as an excuse. She feels as though she is not enough for Richard and that he has completely left her after being invited to Lady Bruton’s without her.
“It was all over for her. The sheet was stretched and the bed narrow…Richard, Richard! she cried, as a sleeper in the night starts and stretches a hand in the dark for help. Lunching with Lady Bruton, it came back to her. He has left me; I am alone for ever, she thought, folding her hands upon her knee.”
Just the idea that she wasn’t invited to a social lunch that her husband was, incites a dangerous train of thought for Clarissa, who already has feelings of neglect bouncing around in her mind. She is so obsessed with the idea that Lady Bruton, an influential socialite, does not like her that she is unnecessarily distressed. This just shows how much influence societal norms can have, pushing her already slightly unstable mind more over the edge. She is very much distraught, which only further disrupts her mind, making whatever illness she has that much worse.
Be that as it may, at the end of the novel, in reaction to Septimus’s death, she regrets that she has lost herself in her quest for getting higher in society and striving to be liked by everyone. “She had schemed; she had pilfered. She was never wholly admirable. She had wanted success”. But with the news of Septimus’s death, she realizes that she should feel happy and content in whatever life she has at that moment. Although her first reaction when presented with the news was the superficial thought that death had ruined her party, a thought influenced by the society she had grown up in, she eventually realizes how good she has it and how she should appreciate what she has instead of being depressed about it. She learns from Septimus’s death, slowly beginning to rebalance her psyche, and restoring the balance that got overshadowed by her depressive thoughts. The unrealistic expectations that society pressures her with were the cause of her depressive thoughts and her desperate need to be perfect. When she lets go of that burden that she put on herself, that is when she is able to rise up from the state of mind she was in an attempt to be happy and content with her life now.
People may not even realize they are suffering. They may just feel weighed down by even the simplest of day to day tasks that they may have enjoyed at one point. There are signs, that, if appropriately detected and treated, can help change lives and prevent unnecessary deaths. Yet, the issue does not lie with the people suffering from mental illness, but lies in society itself. The sickness that so easily spreads in some communities is not physical or mental ailments that medicine can cure. It is a heavy weight that sits on everyone’s shoulders, some more than others, and constantly reiterates that they must be better. The only way we can fix this is to stop letting past societal norms influence our thoughts and actions. In Mrs. Dalloway, each and every character, at one point of the novel, are caught in the web that society builds, preventing their true personalities from shining through. In society, especially at the time of the novel, mental illness was thought to be imaginary and nonexistent. The idea that people in a community can be different and unique is a completely new way of thinking that, at that time, wasn’t at all common. Thus, the way the characters react to mental illness is very revealing. Even the ones going through feelings of depression and doubting their self-worth, suppress those emotions and paste a smile on their face, hiding their pain so that no can see. Yet if we could just look past what society deems as normal, mental illnesses such as those might be a little less common and definitely not as severe as the ones that exist in our communities.
Atonement by Ian McEwan and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: a Comparative Analysis
McEwan’s Atonement and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway both effectively use with chance, coincident, and accident as plot developments and narrative tools
Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway uses chance and coincident as narrative tools. Woolf creates tunnels between characters which are linked through shared chance experiences, such as a car backfiring that is witnessed by entire crowds. By doing this, Woolf is able to introduce different plot lines with different protagonists that never meet, but demonstrate society as a whole. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus Smith never actually meet, but their paths cross through jumps in the narrative structure, and by chance encounters after Septimus’s death. Woolf uses cars, planes, and locations around London to access the minds of her character. When Septimus and Clarissa see the same plane, Woolf jumps in and out of each character. It is chance that the characters both see the plane – if one had been inside, he or she may have missed it, breaking the bridge between the characters. Additionally, the coincidental connections between characters connect plots. After Septimus dies, Clarissa is hosting her party, and the Bradshaws serve as a link between Clarissa and Septimus. The Bradshaws bring death to Clarissa’s party: Septimus’s death. It is by chance that Clarissa would know the doctor that worked with Septimus’s death, and by presenting this connection, readers can see Clarissa’s anger at the real world, as she is angry that death was brought to her party.
The plot of Atonement is fuelled by a young girl who accidentally witnesses mature situations and mistakes their meanings. Briony Tallis is only thirteen years old when, by chance, she witnesses sexual and tense encounters between her sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis family’s housekeeper. First, Briony watches her sister undress and dive into a fountain to fetch a broken vase. The young girl does not, however, see the vase, and instead believes that Robbie is forcing Cecilia to perform this rather risqué action. Briony has no idea what to make of this encounter, and so she starts seeing Robbie in a negative light as she does not know the full story. Later, Robbie accidentally sends Briony off with a letter he mistakenly writes to Cecilia, including very vulgar and sexual language. His accident leads to Briony further questioning her sister’s safety with Robbie. Briony reads the vulgar letter, and, although she does not know what it means, she decides that Robbie is a “maniac”. By creating this image of him, she unknowingly dooms him without even trying to understand the actual story. Briony then walks in on Cecilia and Robbie having sex, but due to her age, she mistakenly believes that Robbie is attacking her sister. This chance encounter frightens Briony about her sister’s safety even more. Briony does not understand what is happening between the lovers, but she jumps to conclusions based on her few chance encounters with Robbie. When Paul Marshall rapes Lola, Briony happens to find them and accidentally accuses Robbie of the crime. By doing this, Briony seals Robbie’s death. McEwan uses these chance encounters of Briony’s youth to explain the reason for Briony’s atonement, as the death of Robbie and Cecilia are on her shoulders, and she stood in the way of their happy life together. Briony’s accidents cause death and create the entire plot of Atonement.
Virginia Woolf’s Presentation of Male and Female Relationships in Mrs. Dalloway
How does Woolf present the relationship between men and women in the novel Mrs. Dalloway?
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway highlights the unequal relationship between men and women living in the post-WWI period in London. The novel is set in 1923, three years after women have gotten the vote, yet there is still a female dependence on the male sex both economically and socially. This can be seen through Woolf’s female protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, whose marriage to Richard has secured her status, financially and socially, in terms of achieving her goal to appear as “the perfect hostess”. Woolf displays the contradictory nature of the mind through the “stream of consciousness” technique, highlighting the struggle of many female characters such as Clarissa and Rezia to survive in a patriarchal society without losing their true selves. Mrs. Dalloway presents the relationship between men and women to be somewhat sacrificial on the woman’s part, as Elizabeth Abel states, “The sacrifices made to the system by wives like Richard’s Clarissa and Septimus’s Rezia are made clear by Woolf.” However, one might argue that men are not always displayed to be the dominant sex, since with cases such as Septimus and Peter there is an element of insecurity and inferiority.
On one hand, the ominous nature of male dominance in post-war London is highlighted through the monotonous motif of drowning. This can be seen through the description of Lady Bradshaw, wife of the highly proclaimed doctor, Sir William Bradshaw. Lady Bradshaw is described as having “gone under… only the slow sinking, water-logged, of her will into his.” Lady Bradshaw is displayed by Woolf as a victim of male domination,”, creating an image of an individual drowning slowly in the midst of her husbands “grey”, watery presence. The relationship between the Bradshaws highlights the prodigious extent of male pre-eminence in 1923. Similarly, we can see through the presentation of the relationship between Rezia and Septimus that Rezia too seems to have given her life and will to her suffering husband. She is described by Septimus, himself, as looking “pale, mysterious, like a lily, drowned, under water.” Septimus’s thoughts about Rezia show his awareness of how their relationship has submerged her spirit, with the description of a drowning lily highlights the destruction of something beautiful. Woolf presents male domination as a form of drowning for the woman. Woolf herself was known to be a radical feminist so it is no surprise that her text addresses the crucial issues of disproportion and power struggle in the relationship between men and women at the time. It is significant that the dominant males such as Sir William Bradshaw were heavily obsessed with the ideology of a “goddess of proportion” among society and yet failed to see the greater form of disproportion in the relationship between living men and women.
Moreover, within the relation between the upper-class couple Clarissa and Richard Dalloway there is a strong sense of female dependence. Twentieth-century critic Susan Squier comments that “The social world of London is male-dominated, and as Clarissa can survive there only by becoming a kind of background for her menfolk.” Clarissa, unlike the other women in the text who have tendencies to drown under the weight of male oppression, is described as like a mermaid, “a creature floating in its element.” Clarissa is aware that she needs to suppress who she is to survive in the male society. She declares “this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.” This renaming serves as an erasure of her original female identity implying the conformity she has to submit to in order to survive. The post-war London society was designed for male’s mould women into their perfect depiction of the idealised woman, Patmore’s ‘The Angel in the House’ poem, first published in 1854, still resonated in the mind of many in the 20th century as a quintessential representation of the perfect woman, loyal and servant-like. This theory of the ideal woman can be seen through Peter’s stalking of the young woman in Trafalgar square: “she became the very woman he had always had in mind; young, but stately; merry, but discreet; black, but enchanting.” These contradictory expectations of women appears highly unrealistic, and with such high demands of women to fulfil men’s high standards it is no wonder women “drowned” under male influence at the time. Woolf with this example encourages the reader to question human fantasy and its remoteness from reality. Peter seems to want this woman to be everything, yet this is impossible. Also, Peter is described as having a habit of “fingering his pocket-knife” when stalking the young woman and also when being in Clarissa’s presence. Peter’s handling of the pocket-knife has connotations of phallic imagery but still it is a form of defence against women, as if he wishes to signal to them not to come too close. Furthermore, when he stalks the unknown woman through the streets of London he seems to want to attack them with the knife. With this Woolf is tapping into the most archaic fear of women – that men will attack them, will misuse their superior strength to dominate by force. The relationship between men and women is presented in these cases to appear dangerous towards the female.
Nevertheless, arguably there is also a sense of male dependence on the female. Septimus appears to depend on his relationship with Rezia, and this may be to protect the possibility that he is homosexual. The stream-of-consciousness narrative reveals “How he had married his wife without loving her.” Septimus seems to have an infatuation with his war friend Evans, who Woolf implies that he is in love with: “he drew the attention, indeed the affection of his officer, Evans by name…They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other.” This insinuates that this is a tale of two inseparable lovers. Woolf herself is known to have had homosexual relations so it is no surprise that she incorporates it in her writing. Similar to Woolf using her husband Leonard as a way to hide her lesbian feelings, Septimus uses his wife, Rezia, to shield him from society’s judgment of his sexuality. From this angle, it can be seen that it is the man that needs the woman, and not vice versa, to survive in society. Additionally, Peter feels a sense of inferiority around Clarissa, thinking of her reminds him that “his whole life had been a failure”. Clarissa seems to have a great sense of power over Peter, diminishing the idea of male dominance. Indeed the novel ends with Peter’s feeling of “ecstasy” towards Clarissa, “What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa.” Clarissa’s hold over Peter is perhaps Woolf’s presentation of female dominance in a relationship. Clarissa indulges in the power she holds over Peter because it is one of her few forms of dominance in the male society she dwells in. As a result, it can be seen that there is level male dependence on woman and female dominance, though almost imperceptible, is still present in post-WWI London.
In conclusion, there are many dimensions to the way in which Woolf explores the relationship between men and women in Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf in just a twelve hour span is able to unfold the tendency men have to completely consume women, when in a relationship, causing them to eventually lose themselves. According to Ellen Rosenman, in regard to Clarissa “eventually she ‘transforms herself into an artefact’ for the sake of male society at large.” Ultimately, the relationship between men and women in the 1923 setting of Mrs. Dalloway is bigoted, it allows women to be hypnotised by the ideals of society till they unconsciously lose their identities and become accessories to their own self-destruction. Women like Miss Kilman who refuse men are seen as freaks who are tormented by not belonging to society properly, yet both Clarissa and Sally have compromised their happiness by choosing men. There does not seem to be an easy path for women to tread in the world Woolf presents.
Mrs. Dalloway: a Study of Suicide in the Virginia Woolf Novel
“Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door… So that was Dr. Holmes.” (Woolf 149-151)
This passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway portrays the view of mental illnesses at the time of Woolf’s life. The character of Dr. Holmes is used to show Woolf’s negative opinion of so-called professionals and the ineffective practices used to treat mental illnesses. In this passage, Woolf uses repetition of terms, little plot build-up, and changing perspectives to help illustrate her meaning.
“Holmes would… Holmes would…Holmes would” (149). The repetition of this term shows Woolf’s opinion of psychiatrists in her time. Psychiatrists would simply take those who demonstrated symptoms of shell-shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental illnesses, and apply their own methods of “healing” them, often by disregarding the actual problem and just sending them away to rest. Mrs. Dalloway is set just after World War I, and many veterans returning suffered from shell-shock. The doctors did not want to help their patients; they wanted instead to force the suffering people to be locked away in homes away from people. Septimus’s doctors act in this way. Holmes marches up the to take Septimus away from Lucrezia. “Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door” (149). The repetition of “Holmes would” helps to show Septimus’s, and by extension, Virginia Woolf’s, opinion on psychiatrists. Holmes is seen negatively to readers through Septimus’s eyes. By using the term “Holmes would”, Woolf is showing Holmes as the villain. He is a powerful man that will do as he pleases with Septimus’s life. Holmes will not consider what Septimus wants, because Septimus is not, in Holmes’s mind, in proportion with the rest of society. “Holmes would” shows power, but power in a negative way. By repeating the term over and over again, readers know that Holmes is not meant to be seen positively. Woolf uses the repetition to establish her negative view of psychiatrists, as they did not try to help patients, they simply locked them away from society.
Septimus’s suicide is rather unexpected. Woolf does not provide any major revelation or breakthrough in Septimus that leads to his death. When he starts deciding how he’ll do it, readers may not even pick up on what he plans to do. The first thought of suicide in the passage is Septimus thinking of “Mrs. Filmer’s nice clean bread knife” (149), but deciding against it. The passage is not clear of what he is deciding against at this point. His thoughts continue through his possible methods of suicide: “The gas fire…Razors…There only remained the window” (149). At this point, readers are more aware of what will happen, but the lack of contemplation from Septimus may be confusing. For many, it is hard to see Septimus committing suicide at this point because things were great in his life just minutes prior to his jump. He even realizes that “he did not want to die. Life was good” (149). This sudden suicide is used to shock readers. Woolf uses Septimus’s suicide to shock readers into realization of mental illness. Septimus’s decision on what method of suicide does not help readers understand what is happening until it is too late – too late for the readers, Holmes, and Septimus. Septimus “flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings” (149), ending his life. Nothing major happens before Septimus’s death. It’s suddenness is used to show how strong and unpredictable mental illnesses could be, as Virginia Woolf experienced her episodes. Woolf was able to sense when an episode of depression was approaching, and many times, there was very little to trigger one. Woolf uses her own experiences to write Septimus’s character, and her use of text in this passage shows the sudden nature of mental illness and suicide.
Mrs. Dalloway is famous for the unique style in which it is written. Woolf creates tunnels between her characters and jumps from mind to mind. This passage is told through the minds of Septimus, Lucrezia, and Mrs. Filmer. The reader begins with Septimus as he decides his method of suicide. The story is then seen filtered through the minds of Lucrezia, followed by Mrs. Filmer. After Septimus’s death, Lucrezia is in shock. She does not fully see what has happened, and she does not react how someone would act upon seeing his or her husband’s death – she even smiles as she says, “He is dead” (150). Her thoughts are cloudy and run together. As she falls asleep, the story jumps to the mind of Mrs. Filmer. From Mrs. Filmer, readers see the story from an outside character that disagreed with Holmes’s practices just by how he handles Lucrezia. Mrs. Filmer believes that “married people ought to be together” (151), and Lucrezia should be with Septimus, but, instead of helping Lucrezia, Mrs. Filmer “must do as the doctor said” (151). In this way, Holmes is again seen as the villain, and now he is seen in this way by an outside character with no prior opinion of the man. By jumping around in the minds of different characters, Woolf shows the different inter-workings of the human mind. Each character has a different reaction to Septimus’s death, and each Woolf shows readers the possible reactions by getting inside their minds.
Septimus’s suicide scene is repetitive, sudden, and uses Woolf’s writing style that shows the thoughts of many. By doing this, Woolf creates a scene that is more than just a suicide – it is an important view of Woolf’s own mental state. Woolf’s depression is shown through the mental state of Septimus Smith.
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”.