Mrs. Dalloway: Body and Room as Box of Flowers and Health

March 1, 2019 by Essay Writer

Somewhere within the narrative of Mrs. Dalloway, there seems to lie what could be understood as a restatement – or, perhaps, a working out of – the essentially simple, key theme or motif found in Woolf’s famous feminist essay A Room of One’s Own. Mrs. Dalloway does in fact possess “a room of her own – ” and enjoys an income (or the use of an income) that is at least “five hundred a year – ” (Room: 164). But most importantly, Clarissa Dalloway also deals with ways of working out female economic necessity, personal space, and the manifestation of an “artistic” self-conception. That this perceived “room” of her famous essay can also serve as a psychological model becomes clearer in Mrs. Dalloway, and the novel reveals another face to this classical essay’s main motif. A personal room is, more profoundly, a certain conception of the “soul” or psyche’s journey through life, as Sally states in the novel’s climax: “Are we not all prisoners? She had read a wonderful play about a man who scratched on the wall of his cell, and she had felt that was true of life – one scratched on the wall” (293). Mrs. Dalloway is a more nuanced mediation of the imagination that powerfully brings into relief qualifications, extensions, and variations on her later, more sociological work’s powerful central and titular metaphor.The book commences with the sentence, “Mrs. Dalloway said that she’d buy the flowers herself.”(3) It is an immediate and assertive portrayal of Clarissa Dalloway as a pecunious and fully self-motivated agent. It is a one-sentence paragraph, and indeed could stand alone as a sort of summary of the entire book (or the book’s main philosophical thrust).Clarissa is a woman who has decided to never let the “wolf” (no pun intended) of necessity near her door, and, through her ambitious nature (“she had wanted success”: 282), made the firm decision to seek and assure her own material well-being. Hence, in the course of her life as depicted in her narrated memories, she moves from one safe house (as the enclosing, larger conglomerate of rooms, and an enclosed space congruent to the room) and garden to another. The passages on Clarissa move back and forth between reoccurring memories of Bourton from the first and last pages of the novel (” – she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air..”(3) – “And once she had walked on the terrace at Bourton”:282) and her present actions in the well-established Dalloway residence over which she presides. She moves safely and consciously from her father’s house to Richard’s house: indeed, it is within the walls and gardens of Bourton that Clarissa makes her firm decision against marrying Peter and then to marry Richard.To marry Peter would have been an impecunious choice, although it seemed potentially more romantic and contained an intimacy that was in the moment of Clarissa’s decision painful to give up (” – she had borne about with her for years like an arrow sticking in her heart the grief, the anguish – “: 10). But, Clarissa realizes that this overwhelming intimacy would have been stifling in the long-term. Her choice of spouse, Richard, comprehends a need for personal intellectual and emotional space: “For in marriage, a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her, and she him.”(10). With Peter, she would never have the means nor the spatial allowances to achieve “a room of her own.”That the house is conceived of as a larger personally and psychically protective shell somewhat congruent to the personally-protective room(s) it encloses is illustrated in Clarissa’s opening excursion out into the wider world of London. Here, in the public streets, Clarissa is preoccupied with her and Peter’s miraculous “survival”(12) in this hostile environment: “She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out on the sea and alone; she had always had the feeling that it was very dangerous to live even one day.”(11). The world outside of her house brings disorientation (in that the narrative moves quickly between sensory observation and Clarissa’s agitated thoughts), violence in “a pistol shot on the street outside” (19: a “shot” foreshadowing Septimus’s death, actually the sound of the car backfiring that serves as a link, through a chain of events, to the characters of with Lucrezia and Septimus in the next pages – Septimus, in turn, shows that there are in fact some how do not survive in “the wide world”, and the danger that Clarissa perceives is very real), discordant thoughts and echoes of a war just past (5). It is a wider world that perhaps tempts Clarissa, as she was tempted to marry a man who eventually settled in India, and when Peter returns she spontaneously thinks: “Take me with you, Clarissa thought impulsively, as if he were starting directly upon some great voyage – “(70). Her longing for journey is juxtaposed to her choice of sedentary establishment as a psychological necessity.From the outer city world, then, the break into the haven of her home is clear-cut: “The hall of the house was cool as a vault – she felt like a nun who has left the world and feels fold round her the familiar veils and the response to old devotions. .. [she] felt blessed and purified – as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only – “(43). The excursion into the external world of the city was in fact only a brief foray made in order to procure flowers for this same abode. Her entry into the flower shop (a literal “box of flowers”) is the most extreme point she reaches in her excursion into “enemy territory” (in that it is the last locale depicted in the narrative scene of her excursion before she returns home), is a portrayal of the ecstasy she finds in this alternate haven: ” – turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness. And then, opening her eyes, how fresh like frilled linen clean from laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked.”(18). It is odd, interesting and appropriate that this oasis of flowers in the middle of the outer, dangerous world is full of flowers that only evoke images of beautiful and ordered domesticity: it is Clarissa’s house where the main activities take place, for which her flowers (acquired by her buying action) are destined and on which our attention should be fixed.Then, it is Clarissa’s room proper where the place where she has some “moment” (47) of personal revelation. Here is Mrs. Dalloway’s most direct intersection with Woolf’s later essay: this is literally a room of Clarissa’s own that this married woman has strangely acquired, after “her illness” and Richard’s insistence (46). Woolf is enforcing an ideal of female solitude, space and intellectual privacy (Clarissa reads Baron Marbot’s Memoirs deep into the night: 46) , that Mrs. Dalloway achieves despite being a married woman and a mother. Clarissa, in contrast to Sally Seton’s production of a brood of five, has only one child: this makes her formally a mother, but a very controlled one. Further, she retains her “virginity” (read- physical “integrity”) despite her marriage, motherhood and age: ” – she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth – that clung to her like a sheet” (46). The motif of Clarissa as a sort of devotional nun (she ascends to her attic room “like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower – “: 45) fits with the metaphor of life as a sojourn in a difficult cell (“There was an emptiness about the heart of life – narrower and narrower would her bed be – “: 45), that yet allows for the production of spiritual fruits: “It was a sudden revelation – like a match burning in a crocus” (47).Similar to Clarissa’s preserved interiority and bodily privacy throughout her marriage, her title, “Mrs. Dalloway” serves as another figurative box in which her more personal identity, “Clarissa” is contained. This name, like a room or a house, serves as a shell or protective “container” around her person. The “Mrs.” attained via beneficent Richard (“Richard, her husband, who was the foundation of it [her house/life and the peace she found in it] – “: 43), provides her with a protected and sustained personal space which includes a literal room of her own (it was, indeed, at Richard’s suggestion that she take her own room). Woolf’s choice of title reveals her central preoccupation with this idea and theme.In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf uses flowers extensively (and perhaps desperately) as a deep metaphor of meaningful adornment of one’s room, real and figurative. They are strange vehicles of pleasure-giving and transcendent speech (as opposed to, or in conjunction with, the difficult and clumsy “scratches”) in life’s cell. Much is expressed constantly through these strangely beautiful, proliferating organisms. In Mrs. Dalloway, there seems to be occurring a whole sphere of communication in which flowers mysteriously replace more tangible communication or information: for instance, all that Peter “knew of” Sally’s husband is that he wore “two camellia’s on his wedding day”(286). Elizabeth is “like a poplar” (287), and now, in adolescence, begins to run the dubitable risk of being compared “to hyacinths – and garden lilies” (204). A young woman Peter encounters on the street is stained by the flower she wears (“the red carnation he had seen her wear as she came across Trafalgar Square burning again in his eyes and making her lips red – “:79) and its impression blends with Peter’s surmisal of certain details of her life: “But she’s not married; she’s young – She was not worldly, like Clarissa.. she is not rich, like Clarissa – ” (79). Peter’s new fiancÈ, “his Daisy” (68) bears the name of the most humble of flowers, as if to underscore the lesser real and flower economy in which he deals. And, most markedly, there is Clarissa’s revelation of a feminine sense via the metaphor of the crocus.As such, gardens are a natural result of the hybridization of these two motifs (an enclosed and humanly-defined spatial area and flowers) is a garden: we accordingly see this metaphor also reoccur meaningfully throughout the novel. Just as colorful flora is springing up in contained interior spaces (a match in a crocus in her own room, the imagined rose as she re-enters her home from the street, or more tangibly in the flower shop) another spatial containment of flora is manifest with the mentions of different sorts of gardens throughout the book. Regent’s park serves as a second main stage for action in the novel (apart from the Dalloway residence) and it sees Mrs.Dalloway, Hugh Whitbread, and the Smiths cross it in the morning and it is where, for instance, Peter’s strange (vegetation-based) vision of the traveler’s way and the woman occurs after he seats himself next to a nurse and perambulator. At a moment of desperation in the park, aghast that her husband is insane, Rezia says “You should see the Milan gardens” (34) as a general statement “to no one in particular”; she speaks of a better, foreign garden, disillusioned by the contents of the English park. Bourton has another striking garden where the main action of marriage negotiation (by the fountain) between Clarissa and Peter take place and finally, near the end of the novel, there are the two significant gardens maintained by the book’s central female characters, Sally and Clarissa. We learn that Sally possesses a garden of endless exotic plants (“in the wilds”:284) and Clarissa, unbeknownst until a guest effusively and epiphanically remarks on it, possesses a sort of transcendent, magical garden (291). It is only noticed at her crowning dinner party, and is a creation by which she is declared “a magician”, a mystical artiste, as it were; surely, she is producing existential pleasures within her enclosed domain.Thus, it seems that flowers represent some sort of transcendent language that mark the interior (artistic) growth and status of the novel’s characters. Sally at first, as a young woman, plucked the heads off of flowers at Bourton (Clarissa thinks: ” – wicked to treat flowers like that – “: 50). Peter, from the outset, only seems to understand or see vegetables. “I prefer men to cauliflowers” (4), he claims, not seeing or even acknowledging the flowers in Bourton’s garden, and privileging the discourse and company of men above that of flowers. Aunt Helena Parry, the indefatigable botanist, is the most articulate advocate of using the seemingly more female “language” of flowers to counter the valuation system used in the world of men: ” – she had no tender memories, no proud illusions about Viceroys, Generals, Mutinies – it was orchids she saw – ” (271).Clarissa, as in the opening sentence, has a consistently assertive relationship to flowers; she peers out onto the world over her “arms full of sweet peas”(21), and Sally’s main image of her at Bourton is “Clarissa all in white – with her hands full of flowers” (287). And, that her husband Richard understands this ineffable, mute discourse is underscored by his silent but meaning-filled gift of roses (179). Sally too, in her marriage and gardening that came with adulthood, seems learned the language of plants: ” – she often got from her flowers a peace which men and women never gave her” (294). Indeed, in her maturity, for Sally “Bourton is tobacco” (287). She uses a precisely evocative plant-metaphor for the sleepless nights, political debates, and youthful challenges to authority that occurred there in their youth: she has become greatly articulate in the symbolic language of plants.We can see why Woolf might be attracted to flowers as a metaphor for artistic or psychological sublimation, as they are both androgynous and sexual, unlike the mere “cabbages” that Peter is fixated upon, and ephemerally beautiful, like the “epiphanic” events of consciousness. They, are further, often markers of luxury and economic means: as a socialist-materialist Peter overlooks their importance, and the beauty of a moment, “however beautiful the day,” and sees only the commodity of book as a source of interior nourishment (9).In the case of A Room of One’s Own Woolf describes the potential fruits of having an independent room as literary production by women: Shakespeare’s sister will be born, she declares. Here, Clarissa’s primary creative production are existential fruits (an appropriate word, as they would be the next biological transition of a flower). Clarissa employs flowers in her creative role as hostess, and flowers occupy the central scene in which Clarissa realizes that her dinner party is a success: “The curtain with its flight of birds of Paradise blew out again. And Clarissa saw – she saw Ralph Lyon beat is back, and go on talking. So it wasn’t a failure after all!” (258). These floral representatives of otherworldly birds, figuratively fly out the window, merge with the wind, and the house’s curtain caresses guest beside the flowers who goes on talking. This placement of guest by window with curtain and flowers, evokes a careful but intuitive precision of placement that might be used in the art of flower arrangement. Clarissa’s creative victory as hostess in rooms over which she presides, in which is achieved an overcoming of seeming opposites and her personal and interior space is validated by a social world: in this particular scene, there seems to occur a harmonious discourse of flowers and men, such that neither minds the other.Thus, we see the use of flowers in a “cultivated” space surface as a potentially psychological model – as an achieved model of sanity in the face of madness. Clarissa Dalloway remains a model of thankful sanity (because of Richard, calmly sitting there reading the Times: 281) and balance, while the character of Septimus has an irrecoverably fractured internal personal space. He must loosely and wildly wander through a public park, in which his wife (his female counterpart) sees no great beauty or merit. It is only in the walls of his own home that experiences some moments of peace achieved here in his personal space, after which he can make the decision to kill himself (a good choice, according to Clarissa: 283). Septimus was doomed to deal mostly in plants (trees, to be exact), and was fixated on saving them from human destruction. Just as he was never able to “understand” art, or was able to master his relationship to it (or declare himself as artist), he hasn’t learned to use flowers.The other main male character counterpoised to Clarissa, Peter, is slightly better off, and is growing to understand flowers, as with his tentative engagement to “Daisy.” He is growing to embrace a more androgynous state, thanks to the women that surround him (Clarissa prime among them) and the giant female-figure that occurs in his dreamy vision in the park. Both he and Sally, however, are on the outskirts of civilization, in a “wilderness” (284), away from the “cultivated” civilization with which Mrs. Dalloway has achieved a truce. There struggles and peripheral forays of main contrasting characters serves to underline Mrs. Dalloway’s more central and fore-square psychological victory achieved in London, the seat of governorship of the state of England and its entire empire.Thus too does Clarissa’s character (and spatial extensions) incorporate the extreme death of Septimus. Her thoughts of his death occurs when she is alone in an empty “little room” (279), freshly left by the Prime Minister and Lady Bruton, representatives of temporal power, nearing the end of her victorious party. She feels the death of Septimus as if it were her own, and then, suddenly, sees the old woman preparing for bed in her own “room of her own”. What this scene succinctly portrays is Clarissa’s symbolic conquering of the extremes of youth and the quiet aestheticism of old age (the young is dead, the old is alone), and shows her establishment in a place of psychological moderation and control, and peace with the external social and political world that surrounds her (as is symbolized by the imprint of the Prime Minister’s recent presence in this temporary personal room).Hence the book ends with Peter’s probing inner words: “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy?… What fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa… For there she was.” This statements of two psychological extremes, terror and ecstasy, and the demonstrative portrayal of Clarissa, end with a clear iteration of the character of Clarissa Dalloway as model of reconciliation of extreme psychological forces, and as a projective antidote to the inadequate contemporary persona of psychological doctor, Sir. William, that Clarissa critiques.In this short narration of Peter’s elated consciousness, he contemplates and feels his experience of Clarissa. The book is about “Mrs. Dalloway”, yet ends with Peter’s contemplation of her: he is “filled” (a usage of a word that invokes a interior-spatial sense) with this woman, and thus the genders are criss-crossed as the book comes to its end with Peter’s perspective. A sort of spontaneous androgynous union of the male and female minds occurs. Peter uses her “real” name, Clarissa, “Mrs. Dalloway” without the protective shell, in effect, to expose her purer essence, and his moment of revelation is parallel to Clarissa’s earlier revelation (that she achieved by way of entering a male perspective) represented by the crocus.Thus, in Mrs. Dalloway, a more lyrical ideal and various perspectives on the room of one’s own motif and themes arises, and is manifest also as the enriching “box of flowers” idea. Woolf hints at a psychological androgynous alchemy that might be achievable via literal marriage (as in the case of Clarissa’s marriage to Richard), or a purely imagined or “negative” marriage (as with Peter), and works out a model of negotiated psychological health as an antidote and remedy to the bad doctoring portrayed in her book, and that must have been typical of her time.

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