The Real Cost of War in Mrs. Dalloway: A Study of Septimus Smith
Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square. There in the trenches… they had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other. But when Evans…was killed, just before the Armistice, in Italy, Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognizing that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably. The War had taught him (Woolf 86).
Propaganda in literature and art during WWI seemed commonplace, and yet, many artists and authors reacted against what they deemed falsities that occur in propaganda. Many did not believe that war is glorious, honorable, or brave, but difficult, painful, and unnecessary. After the war, the magnitude of the lives lost permeated the country, and the soldiers that returned home came back different than when they left. Authors used this as fuel for the fire, portraying what they believe true soldiers and war experiences. Several authors wrote against propaganda in the hopes that their country would stop consisting of the blind leading the blind. In this passage from Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf reacts to the propagandistic ideals she must have heard leading up to WWI.
In the above passage, the narrator describes Septimus Smith, the novel’s war sullied veteran. The values that Septimus Smith held in pre-war London are not unique to him; they applied to many people, both men and women alike, living in London. Yet not everyone that shared these beliefs so willingly put their lives on the line for these ideals. The reasons that Septimus Smith went to war resulted from the propaganda that was force-fed to him leading up to the war. He idealizes British symbols like Shakespeare, the London culture, and its “pure” women. Yet how could a reader not make inferences about where all these ideals lead Septimus Smith at this point of the novel, five years after the end of the war? His bravery and patriotism resulted in his trauma and neurosis, his inability to relate to those around him, and his apathy to his surroundings. As this novel’s setting takes place after the war ended, the reader sees the ideals that Septimus once prided himself in through a different light. These ideals have become propaganda, myths, British vanity and naivety. Evidence of this view of propaganda becomes embodied in the character of Septimus Smith himself, as a shell-shocked, psychologically damaged war veteran.
With the war’s end, Septimus rejects many of the ideals he once embraced. Though the narrator does not specifically state to what degree his views changed, the reader does not get the sense that Septimus identifies himself as a Shakespeare-quoting romantic any more. Also noteworthy, Septimus did not marry the pure English girl that he gallantly went to France to protect, but an Italian whom he barely even knew. He married her right at the war’s end, and though the two spent the past five years together, their relationship seems cold and estranged. This is most likely because Septimus does not know how to live in the world in which he finds himself after the war. Septimus does not congratulate himself for his bravery and courageousness in volunteering to fight in the war, nor does he seem to think about particularities of that war. He now prides himself on the fact that he has lost his ability to feel emotions; though he once thought poetry important enough to go to war and risk one’s life to protect. While before the war Septimus held romantic ideals and lived in a dream world, now he often has trouble deciphering reality with figments of his own imagination. After experiencing the horrors of battle and the grief that comes with war, Septimus sees that his embrace of propagandistic ideals amounted in nothing but pain and loss.
One may also conclude that this passage suggests that Septimus lost the ability to feel emotions because he lost the love of his life, his comrade in battle, Evans. The relationship between Evans and Septimus could be more than just a heterosexual friendship. Perhaps the reason that Septimus no longer feels anything results from the loss of such a good friend, even the man that he loves. Once this man dies, Septimus starts feeling disillusioned from the war and the futility of his efforts, yet he claims that it “taught him.” This passage implies that the lesson he learned from the war was not a positive one, but instead one of those dreaded life lessons that break a person down. This idea supports one parallel between Septimus and Clarissa, who never meet, yet at the end of the novel, after hearing of his death, Clarissa admires the bravery he had when it came to killing himself. The two characters serve as doubles within the context of the novel, both representing people of different backgrounds that see the true effects of war. Further evidence of Clarissa and Septimus as doubles occur when they both question their identities and life choices, and Clarissa also experienced a love affair with the same sex, her childhood friend, Sally Seaton.
While this doubling is an effective literary technique, it does little to make restitutions for Septimus’ hardships. When Septimus kills himself, the reader does not get the sense that any of Clarissa’s problems resolve either. Woolf punishes Septimus for his false notions of bravery through his trauma of survival, which plagues him until he takes his own life. The propaganda that Septimus embodies, that of a brave soldier, willing to die gloriously in battle for his beloved country, disappears after the war. It left him feeling nothing, seeing ghosts of people who died in the war, suffering from flashbacks, and wanting a way out of this life. Once he succeeds in his suicide attempt, Woolf concedes nothing honorable to this character or what he embodies. He receives no redemption for the bravery that eventually led to his suffering. In this way Woolf shows the futility of war, the real result of propaganda, and how alone the shell-shocked soldiers end up.
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