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.
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