The Role Of Past And Present In Mrs Dalloway By Virginia Woolf And 1984 By Geroge Orwell
We influence the past as much as the past influences us. The present influences our memories of the past as much as they remain alive in our present. Past and present are two different realities that interwine with each other and their relationship is often as obvious as well as difficult to understand. Time is a matter that has always been analysed, since its importance is essential for our exsistence and so many reflections concerning its relevance have always been written. However, it is the 20th century that particularly focused its attention on it, being a period of great changes in politics, in society and in culture: people radically changed the way of dealing with reality. As a matter of fact, the idea of time has not escaped to the analysis of the literati of that period: taking into consideration two works of two of the most significant English authors, this essay will examine how past and present played a central role in their stories, investigating on the differences and similarities about this topic in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and 1984 by Geroge Orwell, in order to find out that the true link between them lies in memory.
To analyse this theme, we begin by taking a closer look at a story of continuous dives into the past, as Ralph Freedman states ‘Mrs Dalloway is perhaps best described in this regard by J. Hillis Miller as ‘a novel of the resurrection of the past into the actual present of the characters’ lives”. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen. In these words that Virginia Woolf makes Clarissa Dalloway pronounce at the very beginning of the novel, the central point that motivates Mrs Dalloway is immediately visible. She says them that morning of June while she is preparing for the party she is organizing and that will take place in the evening in her house in London.
However, Woolf immediately tells us that Clarissa has more than fifty years, whereas those words describe an eighteen years old girl in Bourton, the place where she used to live. There is therefore a time ‘distance’ in which the narration flows, which will be a constant of the whole novel, characterized by a detachment of psychic time with respect to the physical time. Thus, the individual moments that compouse Clarissa Dalloway’s day become inexhaustible occasions of return to the past, in a continuous stream of evocations that recall feelings, sensations and emotions which open her interiority and put her in a continuous dialogue with herself and her present. ‘While telling over scenes from the past, Clarissa is evoking an earlier self who functions as a mirror in which she sees both resemblances and contrasts to her present self’, in which the ideas of what she was and what she is follow one another.
However, ‘in a curious conflation of historical ‘times’, the past eclipses the present with its premonitions of a disastrous future’: Clarissa has often feelings of nostalgia and regret, she slowly becomes aware that her actual life depends largely on what she has been; so she wonders if her life (and her future life) could have been different if she had made different choices in the past. Consequently, she retires to the seclusion of her memory, with the purpose of celebrating the past. Her story is intertwined with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a man back from the war and shocked by it, who is a complementary character to Clarissa concerning the relationship with time. As a matter of fact, their crucial difference concerns their attitude towards it, which recalls an inner temporality, directly connected to their interiority. While Clarissa loves remembering the past, Septimus rejects it, and this leads him to detest the present and not be able to project himself into the future. In Septimus, memory contributes to the disintegration, since he ‘cannot distinguish memory from fantasy, reality from dream’ (Dick), whereas in Clarissa it favors a sense of continuity and supports her existence.
Clarissa is not opposed to death and appreciates the inevitable caducity of life, she knows that whether you like it or not the present time will become past time. She conceives the present as a gift, including the reality of death. In hearing that the young Septimus has thrown away his life, she thinks: ‘Oh . . in the middle of my party, here is death!’ Then she leaves the guests to imagine his death, feeling it in her own body, recreating it in her mind. Clarissa lastly understands that everything vanishes and only through a full awareness of our finiteness it is possible to free oneself from the tyranny of nothingness.
Hovewer, it is important to emphasise that time is also a remarkable stylistic choice in this narration. The system of the verb tenses in the text is rather confused: the present of the characters is given in the past and the past, which should logically be expressed by the past perfect, is not in this form. Time remains the same and this emphasizes more the fact that it is represented in its subjective dimension. Neverthless, ‘as the earlier title, ‘The Hours’, indicates, the design is formed in part by the passing of time. ‘ The Big Ben’s strikes suggest an ‘obsessive time-keeping structure’, (Di Battista) that marks the single day during which the novel takes place. It goes without saying that, as previously mentioned, two types of time emerge in the narration, so that it ‘often makes it hard to tell whether a description is either a perception or a memory’ (intenret). Virginia Woolf was definitely influenced by Bergson’s analysis on the existence of an objective time (as the Big Ben and any other clocks that mark the hours) and a subjective time (what it is really perceived in our own conscience) and Mrs Dalloway can only be considered the best example.
Now our analysis must shift its attention to another work in which both the past and the present are real protagonists. Let us start with a question: what happens if the past and the outside world exist only in your mind but your mind is constantly under control? This is the question to which Winston Smith, the main character of 1984, tries to answer throughout the course of the narration. The underlying theme of the story is the fact that the protagonist begins to think about the possibility of a change in his life and the system in which he lives, when he begins to perceive a discrepancy between his memories and the past that is instead continuously updated by the system. The system is a totalitarian government represented by the Big Brother, an omnipotent, dystopic god who rules over all, demanding complete devotion. Devotion, control, submission, these are the key words of the whole story.
”Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”. This sentence appears in Book One, while Winston is reflecting on the ability of the Party to control past and memory. He is ironically a small Party official, whose task is to falsify the information of the past in order to adapt them to the Big Brother’s dictates, so that ‘nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right’. In doing so, in altering any kind of information from the past, it protects its stability: ‘the more important reason for the readjustment of the past is the need to safeguard the infallibility of the Party’. The destruction of the past occurred through the elimination of inconvenient documents, promptly deposited in slits called memory holes. Without memories and a real truth about history, nobody can object or rebel and the power of control is assured. George Orwell created a society in which individual time does not exist, for the simple reason that individuality does not exist: there is only a large community and its total sharing. It is in this context that Winston’s relationship with Julia emerges, which can be read as an attempt to regain a sort of subjective temporality in a world that no longer allowed it.
This is the reason why, lying in bed beside her, ‘Winston wonders how at any time ‘in the abolished past’ the miracle of love could ever been normal, routine, ordinary’ and why she, ‘belonging to a younger generation more habituated to the enormities of Ingsoc, cannot understand why Winston should worry so over the mutability of the past and the alteration of records’. However, it is only fair to say that once again the title plays a fundamental role, immediately identifying Orwell’s intentions. Changing the last two numbers of the date, the result is the year in which the author concluded the work. 1984 was written in 1948, by someone who had first-hand experience of totalitarianism. There is a strong link with the reality that is contemporary to him, with the situation in Europe at that time. As a result, the narration is a look into the past and the present, a critical book on his contemporneity, and only after a severe warning to the future. As Jeffrey Meyers states, ‘the novel, though set in a future time, is realistic rather than fantastic, and deliberately intensifies the actuality of the present. ‘ Therefore/thus, which is the true connection between past and present? Following the reasoning set forth by now, it can be supposed that memory, being something that takes place in the present but that recalls the past, acts as a bridge between these two realities. It is closely connected to time, it captures distant memories and preserves them in a precise moment of the present. But what is the role of memory throughout the lives of Clarissa Dalloway and Winston Smith?
In Mrs Dalloway, it is what gives substance to Clarissa’s existence, it is a set of emotions to recollect in tranquillity, a shelter into the past to avoid the present. Memory is the filter through which she perceives the world. The scene in the book in which Clarissa arranges the folds of her party dress in order to fix it assumes a significant importance: it seems as though she was sewing the present with the past, using the thread of memory. Her existence is in fact characterized by temporal shifts between her current reality and her youth.
In 1984, memory is what questions Winston’s life, what makes him reflect and act. Although it is fuzzy, he is aware of its existence, against a Party that instead aims and pursues the falsification and annihilation of historical memory. This is the reason why Winston struggles with the concept of memory throughout the book and finds that memory is dependent on how he perceives his surrounding. Memory in both cases is what makes them alive. Its perception is what makes them remain attached to the present but connected to the past, in a continuous flow of emotions and recollections.
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