The Theme of Death in Virginia Woolf’s Novel Mrs. Dalloway

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Death has always been a prominent theme in literature for centuries. From ancient Greek literature to today, it has been applied to all kinds of literary forms because death is a constructive part of human nature. The theme becomes popular in periods especially after the great wars since war is the reminder of death and questioning the values. As a modernist writer, Virginia Woolf gives place to longing for the places, questioning the present and gazing in to future in her works. As a result of the ending of an era and therefore the death of a society and most of its values, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, written in 1925, not only reflects death in her characters’ minds but also shows how it affects their daily lives.

Although the novel takes places in almost fourteen hours and it seems like only consisting of a preparation for a party, ironically, death is a recurrent issue that occupies the characters’ minds. Especially Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Smith, and Peter Walsh are the ones who are affected the most by the thought of death. Moreover, they are somehow interrelated. The story generally comprises of events from past. Virginia Woolf considers death to be something that enables people to escape from the hardships of life. She exhibits the idea of death through the thoughts of her characters in Mrs. Dalloway. In the novel, almost everything Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Smith and Peter Walsh do are fuelled by the fear of death. However, their ways of dealing with it differ.

As for Clarissa Dalloway, thanks to the technique of stream of consciousness, she as the protagonist easily gets lost in her thought. She looks as if she is enjoying the moment: however, she constantly thinks about past. She tries to console herself by buying flowers and organising a party. At the beginning, she remembers Peter Walsh’s proposal to her and how and why she rejected him over thirty years ago. She begins to be haunted by certain thoughts: how different her life would have been if she had accepted Peter, and where would she be in her current life. She admits having favoured upper-class life over a moderate one:

She would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase; the perfect hostess he called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.

After reading it in a bookshop window, Clarissa repeats a line from one of Shakespeare’s plays, Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages”. This reference is important in that it celebrates death as a relief rather than regarding it as something destructive. Clarissa has experienced the death of her father, mother and sister. Furthermore, she witnessed the disastrous outcomes of the war. Consequently, death is often apparent in her thoughts. Her condition is summarised by these sentences:

She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary.

In order to avoid the gloomy thoughts of death, Clarissa tries to keep herself busy with earthly entertainments. That is one of the reasons why she invites her acquaintances. She is aware of the fact that she needs to she deals with her environment or she might end up like Septimus Smith.

Septimus Smith is a war veteran, who returns home as shell shocked. Unlike Clarissa, he does not take any pleasure from earthly things because he thinks that nothing makes sense anymore. He has already removed himself from the physical world. It is possible to say that he is a schizophrenic because he talks with his dead friend Evans. Since he is so detached from people, he can criticise them objectively and his criticisms are almost always negative.

He is quite pessimistic about world. Even though Clarissa and Septimus do not look similar on the surface, the only difference between them is their ways of dealing with death. Other than that, they are each other’s double. Their parallel characterisation is proven in that Septimus repeats the same line from Shakespeare before he commits suicide.


Read more