Stoic Communication: Understanding Quiet Suffering through Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours
Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway uses themes that scrutinize the environment of interwar England, which inhibited the ability to effectively communicate one’s thoughts and feelings, because the cultural norm dismissed them in favor of keeping a “stiff upper lip”. In order to survive in this setting, the characters of Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours have means of escaping reality, in which they can ignore their feelings or temporarily alleviate the fear of their own mortality. The finality of suicide is presented to the characters as both an end to their problems, either via death or learning from someone else’s death. Lastly discussed is how Woolf’s inner interior monologue works to convey to the readers firsthand how difficult it is to understand other’s thoughts and feelings.
The Hours’ stories through three generations provides another outlet for explaining Woolf’s larger theme of escape through universal suffering, whilst visually translating the stream-of-consciousness style of writing. Mrs. Dalloway takes place after the Great War, which is still fresh enough in people’s minds that while there is a sense of gratitude, Septimus’ introduction as a character struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder serves to remind the reader that for many characters it doesn’t feel over; This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing. (Woolf 8) Clarissa recognizes that there is sadness in people, but because of the emotionally oppressive culture she grew up in, her conscious forbids her from breaking social norms. The reason this persists is because Clarissa is becoming a relic who still believes in Old England. The traditionalists hold onto the stoic, Old English method of dealing with one’s problems, and seek meaning in English symbols and traditions. However, this idealism is lost on the New England, since many of them had seen the tragedies of war. Septimus becomes disillusioned from the war, and now no longer finds meaning in English patriotism. These schools of thought create the environment which supports stoicism because where one class is watching their traditions crumbling, another is realizing that their traditions have never meant anything, and so a more comfortable solution of dismissing emotions has risen.
The Hours effectively translates this environment in its scenes depicting Laura Brown as the 1950s housewife who must survive in her time by repressing her emotions; It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear. There it is. No one’s going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life (The Hours). Laura’s choice of words shows the helplessness she felt in her time, because she wasn’t able to express her true emotions. It is this suffocating lack of communication that is mirrored in Mrs. Dalloway through Septimus’ inability to express his own thoughts from his PTSD. Both characters also have life partners that are not able to ease their troubles, and at times exasperate them.
The Hours demonstrates how the fifties ethos of conforming and being an active participant in the American Dream –while different from English stoicism- produced nearly identical results of people who felt to oppressed. It makes sense that in these constrictive environments, the characters look for means of escape. The methods they use in their escape is also very telling of their personalities, as suggested by Zwerdling, “Woolf is deeply engaged by the question of how the individual is shaped (or deformed) by his social environment, by how historical forces impinge on his life and shift its course by how class, wealth, and sex help to determine his fate”. Both Clarissa’s plan parties because the busy, tedious work means they don’t have to confront their troubles head on; it also gives off the impression that there is an attitude about them which says “I don’t have problems, I have my act together”. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa’s party planning also shows one of the last roles she has left in society. At her middle age, Clarissa has completed her motherly duties and because women of that time weren’t known for going back to school or returning to careers, she plans parties that allow her to be the center of the “web” of communication that occurs throughout the story.
One can also make the motherly comparison to the Clarissa of The Hours, who takes care of Richard in a maternal manner, and also plans parties to provide a means of communicating with old friends. Richard uses writing as a means of escaping and making sense of his traumatic childhood, whilst his mother is a reader, because her escape is through a more passive form of immersion. Their relationship as writer/reader is important because it also dictates their final method of escape from suffering. Richard’s role as the writer indicates his need to escape into a role in which he feels in control, something lacking in his childhood which in the end formulates his suicide. The writer must have a more hands on approach towards control, as is Richard’s suicide, whereas the reader’s source of control stems from first making the decision to escape, but then allowing others to take her on a journey, much in the way Laura flees to Canada. Peter Walsh finds his escape through his relationships with women, through his first marriage, in his memories of Clarissa, and then in his engagement to Daisy. Peter’s method of escape is indicative of his fleeting sense of security, especially after stalking Maisie Johnson, whilst comparing her to Clarissa, and then finding himself lost after she enters her home. He lives in a cycle of self-doubt, while seeking women who he believes will rescue him from himself. Woolf has created Peter in this way to say that these escapist methods are only temporary, and while they can lessen the burdens of stifled emotions and impending mortality, they are not the ending of one’s suffering.
It’s important to note the shared methods of escape from the characters of both the book and film, because it shows how suffering is universal. A character must commit suicide in order that Clarissa see the value of a life. Woolf then uses suicide, not entirely as relief from the pain of living, but so that the other characters can learn to live. Septimus saves Clarissa from herself, because of the lesson she takes away from his suicide. In The Hours Richard commits suicide so that Clarissa might learn to think for herself first, as the cause of so much of her strife is in losing herself to other people. The Hours is able to suggest the end of one’s suffering through another premise. The Hours goes through different time periods to show how each woman relates to one another. Three different women are brought together, not in spite of different cultures and times, but because their struggles are universal, suggesting that the true escape of one’s suffering is in each other. There is also an interesting act of kindness Julia displays to Laura after learning the news of Richard’s death. That this scene should occur so closely after Richard’s suicide implies that, not only is suffering universal, but that one should find comfort and kindness in acknowledging its universalness- when all are suffering one does not have to suffer alone. Woolf uses the inner interior monologue, which guides readers through the thoughts of each individual character, to show how difficult it can be to understand people.
It is first hard for readers to understand how they themselves feel about certain characters, as each character is thought of differently by different people in the story, creating the first wall of miscommunication. “Woolf illustrates the extreme beauty and complexity of the solitary mind, yet at the same time, she also expresses frustration with the struggle to communicate fully with others, to find a chink in the wall that separates one individual personality from another” (Coartney). The characters drift in and out of memories, showing how some of them have stayed the same, while suggesting that others have turned out for the worse, or in some situations better. These memories serve to distort the reader’s point of view, showing the many sides to one story. “… Virginia Woolf introduces memories of the past that by and large are fully evoked for their own sake and disengage the character from the present” (Rachman). The best interpretation of this in The Hours is in the bathroom scene, wherein Laura Brown is being cooed at by her husband, whilst she is in the midst of a mental breakdown. As viewers, we have seen the inner turmoil Laura goes through, and so the “affectionate” cooing by her husband comes across as needling. This understanding can only come about through the viewer’s inclusion to the inner monologue, which was Woolf’s point in getting through the difficult web of communication.
The themes of struggling to communicate, escaping an oppressive culture, and learning after suicide that occur in Mrs. Dalloway serve in explaining the ultimate theme, which is that all people suffer. The Hours is able to visualize these and communicates the ultimate theme through the use of different time periods, each showing an oppressive culture, and characters with the need to be heard. It is important to discuss the relations of suffocated communication between The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway because, while they both take place between different people, spanning different cultures and time periods, suffering is found in both stories. Woolf’s use of Mrs. Dalloway as a critique on the oppressive norms of her time does not go unnoticed by The Hours, as it shows how years after Mrs. Dalloway has been published, the struggle to communicate clearly is still a very real one. In keeping with Woolf’s desire to see Mrs. Dalloway as a critique of her time period, it should in the future be proposed as a piece of fiction which seeks to see people responding to one another in a more empathic way, with societies which promote effective communication, and not its hindrance.
Coartney, Stephanie. “A View through the Window: Virginia Woolf’s Portrayal of the Mind in Mrs. Dalloway.” Mckendree.edu. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
Rachman, Shalom. “Clarissa’s Attic: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway Reconsidered”. Twentieth Century Literature 18.1 (1972): 3–18. Web
The Hours. Dir Stephen Daldry. Perf. Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. Paramount Pictures, 2002. Netflix.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harvest Ed., Harvest Pbk. ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1997. Print.
Zwerdling, Alex. “Mrs. Dalloway and the Social System”. PMLA 92.1 (1977): 69–82. Web.
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