Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” is a day-in-the-life story that folds back and forth in time, examining one woman’s life decisions and one man’s postwar nightmare. The woman is Clarissa Dalloway, a “perfect hostess” in her early fifties, confronts the decisions she made thirty years ago. The man, intended by the author to be Clarissa’s “double”, is the “shell-shocked” war veteran Septimus Warren Smith who suffers delayed flashbacks over the wartime death of a comrade. The novel follows parallel stories of Clarissa and her “double,” whom she has never met.
Their lives are connected through interaction of external events in time and space, such as Clarissa’s evening party, a motor car passing both, an airplane overhead. The two are further connected through the writer’s use of various poetic techniques such as imagery and “literary echoes. ” Septimus and Clarissa also parallels and contrasts in many aspects of characterization, as in their emotional problems, their marriage, their pasts, their suicidal impulses and their homosexual relationships.
However, Clarissa will ultimately differ from Septimus, who, fails to confront the requirement of the society, commits suicide the night of Clarissa’s party. Virginia Woolf manages to make use of time and space to join the apparently disconnected journeys of Clarissa and Septimus. Their stories take place in a single June day in 1923, within the city of London. The day culminates with the party to be held in the evening. The party is not only looked forward to as a great event for Clarissa and her guests.
More significantly, the party also foreshadows the only direct connection we could find between Clarissa and Septimus, with a doctor who, having treated Septimus, shows up at the party to report his fate. Again, Clarissa and Septimus are joined in time and space as Clarissa is shopping on Bond street. Among the London traffic, Clarissa is pondering how to make sense of her life in relation to other people: “in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being… part of the people she had never met”(11).
Clarissa’s feeling that we are part of everything and live in each other justified as we are given a cross-section view of London as various people in the city respond to the same event. The motor car, for instance, is used as a spatial device to unify the individual characters as they respond to it with curiosity, terror or patriotism. “Mrs. Dalloway… looked out with her little pink face… Everyone looked at the motor car. Septimus looked… as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him”(18).
Septimus makes his first appearance as Clarissa, from her florist’s window, watches the mysterious motor car. Similarly, in the scene where the airplane is skywriting, we are again introduced to both of their psyches through their respective stream of consciousness. Poetic techniques are constantly used to relate Clarissa and Spetimus in the novel. Big Ben is a sound image of great symbolic importance linking the activities of the two. Throughout the day, it counts out the hours, marking the progress of Clarissa and Septimus: “It was precisely twelve o’clock, twelve by Big Ben… welve o’clock struck as Clarissa Dalloway laid her green dress on her bed, and the Warren Smiths walked down Harley Street. Twelve was their hour of their appointment”(122). Towards the evening, the strikes of Big Ben mark the climax of their journeys. Clarissa’s party is about to begin while Septimus is undergoing a nervous breakdown and eventually commits suicide. Water is the recurring imagery used by Woolf to associate Clarissa and Septimus. Water is something that cannot be contained, it therefore suggests irregularity.
Despite that Clarissa is being seen as a realist by the others, she identifies herself strongly with different images of water, and these indicate the irrationality in her characters. Standing on the street, Clarissa suddenly feels “herself being out, out, far out to the sea”(10). Sea appears as a dangerous element and the individuals are likely to be carried away by it. This irrational thoughts interplay with her physical illness, pulling her closer to the insane double of her. For Septimus, he pictures himself as “a drowned sailor on a rock”(89) when his sense of alienation and indifference becomes all but intolerable.
Before committing suicide, he allows his madness to pour like water on him by imagining “the sound of water was in the room… Every power poured… on his head… when he was bathing, floating, on the top of the waves”(182). As such, Septimus is reaching the climax of his emotional disorder which makes his death inevitable. Apart from water, rose is also used as imagery to reveal the essential differences and similarities between Clarissa and Septmius. The novel begins when Clarissa goes to the florist to “buy the flowers herself”(3) for the party, indicating that she belongs to a class that can afford the beautiful and frivolous.
Septimus’s wife, on the other hand, can only buy the half death roses. Septimus is like his roses, “almost dead already”(121). He will be destroyed, either through losing his selfhood by accepting Sir William’s advice or killing himself. As exemplified by the roses, the society demands that “the unusual conform or wither. ” Septimus, who finds himself utterly alienated by civilization’s “sense of proportion,”(129) cannot survive in a utilitarian society where the upper class dominated.
For Clarissa, there is also the possibility the she will be sacrificed to the dominant class As Peter worries, she might trust too much to her charm in making the world beautiful. Sally also fears that Clarissa “lacked something”(243) to survive if she let her nature of roses predominates. Throughout the novel, the lines from “Shakespeare’s Cymbeline” which suggest that “death is a welcome release from the burden of life,” recur forming literary echoes between Clarissa and Septimus.
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter rages”(11) which first enters Clarissa’s mind as she reads in a book, “appears twice before it becomes a part of Septimus’s thought, where it ironically reassures him just before his death. ” Clarissa and Septimus are both sensitive individuals who feel emotionally bankrupt. On one hand, Clarissa is a “perfect hostess” who pours most of her creativity and social warmth into her parties. She is so sensitive that the simple act of opening her door, or looking at a bowl of flowers, fills her with joy: “What a lark! What a plunge!
For so it had always seemed to her when, a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear… How fresh, how calm… looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke… rising, falling”(3). However, despite her love of life and her imagination, Clarissa is essentially a cold person. Earlier in the novel, in her reminiscent of Peter Walsh, we knew that “Cold, heartless, a prude, he called her”(9). Then on Peter’s first visit to her in years, there is still some emptiness in her: “Shall I tell her… or not? But she is too cold”(55). He comments again later, of “this coldness, this woodeness, something very profound….. n her”(78).
Peter recognizes this coldness is something “mortally dangerous” to Clarissa that he refers it to “the death of her soul”(77). Clarissa is well aware of her own coldness: “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind”(40). This central coldness tends to cut her off from the love and the openness with people that should otherwise come naturally to someone with a social instinct as strong as hers. Septimus, on the other hand, has lost the ability to feel. Septimus’ war experiences destroyed him emotionally that he cannot relate to other people and the external world.
Septimus possesses the soul of a poet, but he is so sensitive that he cannot accept a life without feeling. Confronted with the horror of his emotional isolation, he has finally retreated to a private world of madness. While Clarissa’s ability to accept and live with that central coldness in herself, keeps her sane. Clarissa is always able to interrupt her wandering thoughts, in order to pull herself back from unacceptable modes of thinking. Not only is Septimus unable to initiate escape from his lengthy periods of mad contemplation, he resents the interruptions others inflict on him.
Rezia tries in vain to pull Septimus back. “Interrupted again! She was always interrupting. “(31). Clarissa and Septimus are not successful in their marriage. Clarissa did not marry for standard romantic love, she has chosen a safe, comfortable marriage to politician Richard Dalloway over the more romantic and adventurous Peter Walsh. Her decision to marry Richard allows her the party-going social life she loves, without any risks. More importantly, her marriage to Richard allows her “a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her…
But with Peter everything had to be shared… it was intolerable. “(9) However, their marriage is doomed since complete communication is impossible for both of them. Though Richard is anxious to express his love to Clarissa, he fails because he has the shyness and awkwardness of a young man. Impossible for Clarissa because of her coldness and her pervasive realism. There is a gulf between them, which Clarissa, at least, is not interested in crossing. For Septimus, he decides to marry Rezia when he discovers “that he cannot feel”(113).
And what attracts him most in Rezia is her assured activity of making hats. It is quite clear that he marries not out of affection but the need for “safety”(113). Septimus “had married his wife without loving her; had lied to her; seduced her”(119). Besides, communication between them is just as futile with Septimus’ insanity. In Regent’s Park, Septimus is distorting his thoughts with external objects, Rezia feels that “she could not sit beside him” as “he made everything terrible”(29). Later, Rezia is nearly collapsing “No! I can’t stand it any longer… he] wasn’t Septimus any longer… to talk to himself, to talk to a dead man. (84)”
Clarissa and Septimus rely heavily on the support from their spouses even though their marriages are not successful. Madness cuts off Septimus from nearly all real human contact and Rezia is his only hope for a cure. Any attempt to separate him from her is a threat to his existence. Septimus feels that “he was deserted”(121) when Dr Holmes invited Rezia to tea. In the same way, Clarissa feels “herself suddenly shrivelled, aged, breastless”(39) when Lady Bruton invited her husband to lunch without her.
Clarissa and Septimus share repressed homosexuality. Clarissa’s passion for girlhood friend Sally Seton is one of the few intense emotions she ever felt in her life. Alongside Clarissa’s homosexual relationship with Sally, we have Septimus’s possibly erotic love for Evans. However, as we shall see, the relationship between Clarissa and Sally is depicted in a more physical and explicit way. Clarissa’s feeling for Sally “was not like one’s feeling for a man”(43). The relationship is physical to a degree that feelings of sexuality existed between them when “Sally… kissed her on the lips”(45).
The nature of Septimus’s relationship with Evans, on the other way, is vague and metaphorical. It is vague because it is not described in details: In the war, “he drew the attention, indeed the affection of his officer, Evans by name”(112). There is no indication of the strong existence of sexual passion between them. They have a metaphorical relation since they are like “two dogs playing on a hearth-rug… They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other” (112). Clarissa and Septimus are also trying to escape from their pasts.
Septimus is the victim of war, seeing the death of Evans fills him with quilt. The absurdity and hypocrisy of war even makes him believe that “it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning”(115) Septimus is unable to overcome his hallucinations of Evans or to accept the reality that Evans is dead. Evans, who, ghostlike, keeps hunting Septimus. It seems that Septimus is changed forever by the battle. Though Clarissa has also experienced the horror of seeing her sister’s death, the effect of this absurd experience is far less disastrous.
Clarissa “thank Heaven” that “the War was over,”(5) but it is not over for Septimus who relives in his memory. On the other hand, Peter and Sally, who had been lost to her for many years, return as if they were ghosts. Even before they surprise Clarissa by their actual appearances, Clarissa has been thinking of them. However, the return of Peter and Sally into Clarissa’s life is not entirely analogous to Septimus’s vision of Evans; they travel from India and Manchester, not from the afterlife, although Evans’s appearance in the park is a case of mistaken identity. Like Septimus, Clarissa has the potential to be overwhelmed by life.
Hearing of Septimus’ suicide, she withdraws to consider her party’s deeper meaning for her. She imaginatively recreates Smith’s suicide and recalls that “she had thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away” (241). It is clear that Clarissa shares Spetimus’ suicidal impulses as she went on imagine “But this young man who had killed himself – had he plunged holding his treasure? ‘If it were now to die, ’twere now to be most happy, she had said to herself once. “(242). However, Clarissa only needs to die in imagination by identifying herself with Septimus.
Clarissa survived from her suicidal instinct as she acknowledges that her subsistence depends on the death of Septimus, the darker sides of her nature, so she sacrifices it gladly. Throughout “Mrs. Dalloway,” there are important parallels as well as contrasts between the characters of Clarissa and Septimus. Although the final communion of Clarissa and her “double” is achieved without a “physical confrontation,” it is not necessary for their relationship to be merely a metaphysical one. Instead, there is a social dimension in their relationship as they are living under the same social forces and environment.