In lieu of an action-packed or scandalous plot line, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway takes a more subtle and psychological mode to ensnare its reader, one of course meant to depart from the strict Victorian and Edwardian novels that preceded it. This modernist form of narration, which pays much more attention to the inner-workings of character than to the construction of a typical plot, takes into account the inherent subjectivity of audience. To expand, Woolf, in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” opposes Arnold Bennett’s belief, “that is only if the characters are real that the novel has any chance of surviving,” by asking her reader to consider, “what is reality?” (Woolf, 749). In her opinion, there is no one true reality, but rather infinite ones that are defined by the subjective interpretations of the individual: “A character may be real to Mr. Bennett and quite unreal to me. For instance, in this article he says that Dr. Watson in Sherlock Homes is real to him: to me, Dr. Watson is a sack stuffed with straw, a dummy, a figure of fun (749).” This emphasis on subjectivity—and its consequential inattention to objective reality—no doubt comes to fruition in Mrs. Dalloway, in which Woolf allots each character his or her own psychological nuances and personal histories that necessarily affect and influence his or her own perceptions of external stimuli, ultimately proffering the reader with no real reality and in so doing lionizing the anti-realism that underscores the novel at hand.
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To this end, Woolf punctuates Mrs. Dalloway with constant and abrupt shifts in narrative perspective whereby passing moments are elongated for pages in which a seemingly inconsequential external stimulus triggers a thought or memory in a character that then triggers another thought and so on and so forth, until she has delivered her reader a thorough exposition of that character’s mind. Several years before publishing the novel, Woolf wrote in her journal, “Mrs. Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side…” (Woolf, A Writer’s Diary). Given this binary, it would be easy to cast Clarissa Dalloway as the “sane” and Septimus Warren Smith as the “insane;” and indeed, such a perception is easily supported by context: Clarissa is a member of London high-society who, though plagued by regrets, has lead a relatively easy life, whereas Septimus is a WWI veteran suffering from shell-shock and its accompanying hallucinations and suicidal ideations. Stark as it may be, this contrast in background is by no means Woolf’s invitation to the reader to value one character over the other; such is to say, she is not setting the quotidian troubles of London high-society against the grander psychological and physical impacts of WWI in an attempt to deride the former, but rather she is opposing them in a delicate effort to communicate the equality of the human experience. In fact, one could argue that Woolf has positioned these two characters so far apart on the social spectrum to hyperbolically communicate the inconsequentiality of this very spectrum; indeed, madness, and ultimately death, do not discriminate based on status. To Woolf, it matters not whether one’s troubles stem from choosing flowers or attending parties, or from shell shock; all that matters is that one is troubled, that one is human, and through this does the comparison of Clarissa to Septimus yield its most salient consequence.
At the novel’s beginning, the disparities between Clarissa and Septimus—between the sane and the insane, as it were—are outstanding, rendered especially clear by their interactions with the outside world and their internal musings on the nature of death. Indeed, Woolf introduces Clarissa to the reader as she makes the infamous declaration to “buy the flowers herself” (Woolf, 3), a decision that leads her out of her house and into the busy streets of London, during which journey she seems externally placid and, by all accounts, normal: “’Good-morning to you, Clarissa!’ said Hugh, rather extravagantly, for they had known each other as children. ‘Where are you off to?’ ‘I love walking in London,’ said Mrs. Dalloway. ‘Really it’s better than walking in the country’” (5-6). Such an exchange, in which Clarissa demonstrates a capacity to assimilate and, at least for a moment, to shroud her internal instability in cordiality, is a far cry from her later ruminations, “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” (8). Here, the mention of “taxi cabs,” and of the omnibuses in Picadilly that galvanized these thoughts a few sentences prior, represents the public sphere in which Clarissa successfully exists, whereas her feelings of solitude represent the private sphere, in which her existence is plagued by constant self-doubt and regret. In spite of this ongoing battle between public and private, Clarissa absolutely possesses the ability to control her internal demons, repressing them when society requires it of her, but, external regularity notwithstanding, these demons still reign within.
By contrast, Septimus lacks Clarissa’s ability to master her external world and to seamlessly exist within it, as every visual or aural experience launches him further into the recesses of his delusive mind. Heeding the advice of her husband’s psychiatrist, Dr. Holmes, that Septimus “take an interest in things outside of himself” and “notice real things” (21-25), Lucrezia attempts to focus his attention elsewhere—in this instance, on Regent’s Park—so as to distract him from internal darkness with external beauty. For Septimus, though, concentration on the external achieves the opposite of Dr. Holmes’s desired effect, consistently pushing him further and further into himself until, “He would shut his eyes; he would see no more” (22). Pleasant as an image of trees flowing in the wind may be, Mrs. Dalloway knows no objective reality such as this, and so presents them through Septimus’s subjective perception of them, an overwhelming one that causes him to close his eyes and thereby to remove himself from the external world, ultimately leaving him even more vulnerable to the hallucinatory powers of his shell-shocked mind. With this, Septimus demonstrates his greater inability to exist outside of himself, for his madness poisons his perception and casts darkness over all that he sees.
While the two characters differ greatly in their interactions with the world around them, Woolf separates them further through their contrasting opinions on the nature of death. Insofar as it is contextualized in the novel, death had never been more prominent in England, the national death tolls of which were massive in WWI, and so it stands to reason that Woolf would tackle it here. To Clarissa, who lacks Septimus’s first-hand, visceral experience, death is a necessary reality that comes with life: Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all of this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow, in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived…she being part, she was positive, of the tress at home; of the house there… (9) Here, Clarissa values death not only because it is inevitable in the process of life, but also because it perpetuates one into a greater, unconfined existence. Death, then, becomes an omnipresent and looming specter that links all humans together, weaving in its wake an ever-growing and infinite web of human experience that offers refuge for both the living and the dead.
Still, it should be made clear that Clarissa’s musing here reflects nothing more than an acceptance of death and decidedly not an embrace of it. Slight as this distinction may be, it is a crucial one, especially when cast in the context of Septimus’s various declarations of suicide. If Clarissa’s passive cooperation in death is understood as sanity, then Septimus’s active participation in it must necessarily be understood as insanity, and, in turn, the two characters themselves understood as critical poles, the comparison of which yielding insight unto the greater human existence. For instance, whereas Clarissa’s outlook on death sees her as a part of a greater whole, Septimus’s shell shock and the feelings of social detachment it instills in him render his perspective much more self-centered: Look the unseen bade him, the voice which now communicated with him who was the greatest of mankind, Septimus, lately taken from life to death…. suffering for ever, the scapegoat, the eternal sufferer, but he did not want it… (25) Whereas Clarissa views her death as a means to unite herself with her world, Septimus views his own as an oddly sacrificial means to cleanse society of the burden that is himself, that is his inability to assimilate or to feel.
Further, the narrator’s depiction of him as an unwilling “scapegoat” expresses a disconnect between Septimus and the image of himself that he wishes to destroy; to clarify, his regular, conscious mind—Septimus man—seems to have merged inseparably and accidentally with the societal projection of him—Septimus soldier—a fusion that leaves him with no choice but to kill himself. As Septimus’s broader feelings of isolation have caused him to perceive himself as an enemy of his race, his suicide becomes a ritualized and necessary sacrifice for the greater good of mankind. And indeed, Woolf casts Septimus’s suicide as one without agency, having been influenced not from within, but from without. As Dr. Holmes’s visits persist and his diagnoses remain the same—“there was nothing whatever the matter” (90)—Septimus’s condition continues to deteriorate past the threshold of bearableness and he clings further and further onto the belief that he is an enemy of human nature, whom he identifies with Dr. Holmes as, “the repulsive brute, with the blood red nostrils” (92). Now totally convinced of his desertion, Septimus hears the whole world clamor, “Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes,” to which he asks, “But why should he kill himself for their sakes?” (92). And so, he concedes victory to human nature, which has triumphed over its sacrificial victim: “He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings—what did they want?…Holmes was at the door. ‘I’ll give it to you!’ he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings (149).” As Dr. Holmes is coming to collect Septimus to send him to a home in the country for further treatment, Septimus literally “gives” up his physical body, preserving his self through his fateful defenestration in a final declaration of autonomy that actualizes Woolf’s concern with the soul over the body (Woolf, 740). Both a surrender and a victory, for he neither wants to be committed to a home nor to die, his suicide is here related as an unfortunate necessity of his circumstance, the only means through which he can maintain agency over his soul.
Powerful as the aforementioned differences in character are, Woolf subtly punctuates them with similarities, which foreshadows the ultimate connection that she will draw between them in the novel’s closing scenes. These similarities, it should be noted, can be observed from the novel’s onset, at which point they are largely superficial, confined to the two’s similarly avian appearances and fondness of Shakespeare (10-14). Soon thereafter, though, the similarities bleed into character, as each of them expresses their respective feelings of isolation and solitude in spite of companionship. Once he sees that Rezia’s wedding ring has fallen off, Septimus thinks, “Their marriage was over, he thought, with agony, with relief. The rope was cut; he mounted; he was free, as it was decreed that he, Septimus, the lord of men, should be free; alone…” (67). To Septimus, marriage represented the necessity to act normal, so with its perceived dissolution he is freed of that oppressive burden, finally able “to hear the truth, to learn the meaning…” (67), without worrying for Rezia. In the same vein, Richard’s general absence in Clarissa’s marriage to him allows her the freedom of “independence” and “self-respect” (120) that may not have been enjoyed had she married someone more involved, like Peter Walsh would have been (10). In addition to these, perhaps the most crucial similarity is that of sexual repression, for which both characters have a clear proclivity. With Clarissa, repressed sexuality comes in the form of nostalgia for a past lesbian relationship with Sally Seton, with whom she fell in love as a girl. Before divulging the details behind their relationship, Clarissa first admits that she cannot resist “sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman…,” which makes her feel, “a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion…which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores” (32). Here, the vaginal imagery is blatant, though never explicit, meant to express Clarissa’s lesbian tendencies, which are soon thereafter brought to a head in Clarissa’s description of her kiss with Sally as “most exquisite moment of her whole life” (35). But, given social constraints, Clarissa could never have really actualized her feelings for Sally or vis-a-versa, and so she remains a distant memory, a phantom of youth that has long been locked away.
Though less obvious than Clarissa and Sally’s relationship, Septimus may have had his own homosexual experiences during WWI with Evans, the officer and friend who now haunts his hallucinations. With his impressive time in the trenches, Septimus “drew the attention, indeed, the affection of [Evans],” and together they formed a relationship akin to “two dogs playing on a hearth-rug” (86). However, it was not to be and Evans dies just before the Armistice, with which Septimus’s true repression begins: “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. It was sublime” (86). In this display of masculine and soldierly composure, Septimus feigns the apathy that would soon thereafter come to undo him. Indeed, the War and its expectations of masculinity force Septimus to repress not only those homosexual feelings towards Evans, but also his capacity to feel at all, resulting in the unceasing hallucinations of Evans and his broader inability to assimilate. Having established these similarities, Woolf has laid herself a foundation from which to draw a final link between the two characters in question, achieving this by intersecting their plot lines as Septimus’s suicide is mentioned at Clarissa’s party.
At first, Clarissa is angered by the story, viewing the personified “death” as an intruder in her party who necessarily dampens the mood, but, as she begins to ponder it, she finds herself amidst a vision of her own death, “Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt” (184). As Septimus’s death stands in for Clarissa’s, and in so doing allows her to experience death without dying, she reaches a clarity never before realized in her psyche: A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death. (184) Having spent her life repressing feelings for the sake of sociality, which necessitates “corruption, lies, chatter,” Clarissa now understands “the embrace” of death that is entirely incommunicable by the spoken word. This “thing” that Clarissa’s proclivity towards sociality has obscured, has been preserved by Septimus’s suicide, and for this Clarissa’s feels “glad” (184). As Clarissa views her parties as an “offering for the sake of an offering” (122), or a knowledgeably inconsequential gift, Septimus’s suicide is in turn viewed as the opposite, a gift from which the giver reaps no reward, an invaluable mode of silent communication. And so, Septimus’s death presents Clarissa with a means of catharsis that allows her, as Septimus had previously resolved, “to fear no more the heat of the sun” (186), a Shakespearian echo that symbolically seals their union.
At the close of her ruminations, Clarissa is grateful for Septimus’s suicide, not because of his death, but because of the strength she can derive from it: “He had made her feel the beauty; he had made her feel the fun.” Ending this sequence on such a positive note, Woolf realizes the value of Septimus’s sacrifice, for he did not die in vain. Ultimately, the unlikely connection Woolf draws between the upper-class British woman and the shell-shocked solider far exceeds character, meant, on a broader scale, to represent the interconnectivity of the human existence. As a vehicle for this message, Woolf elects death, which, in the novel’s final scene, she presents through Clarissa’s eyes as an illuminating and empowering force, not a morbid reality. En route to this conclusion, the novel grapples with the balance of the objective and subjective, making clear that the latter is supreme, a constant lens that filters the former. Death, however, transcends this dichotomy and exists as its own reality outside of the general realm of human existence, a message related through the bond it forms between Clarissa and Septimus. And so, in the end, the reader must understand Clarissa and Septimus’s relationship as a greater manifestation of the human experience; that is to say, different as we all may be, our fates are nonetheless identical, for we are all human.