“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” So begins Virginia Woolf’s modernist epic, a quieter answer to James Joyce’s boisterous, poly-vocal “Ulysses.” Unlike Joyce and his tome which we celebrate worldwide on Bloomsday (June 16th), Woolf and her entangled narratives are admired, taught, and read the world over but there’s no day dedicated to Clarissa Dalloway’s trek through London.
Mrs. Dalloway offers a more complicated portrait of life and love than Molly Bloom’s emphatic yes. In 2016, it seems fitting to celebrate a novel that reflects as much darkness as light.
The novel begins with Clarissa Dalloway’s preparations for a party in the evening. We follow her through London as she picks up the flowers but the narrative quickly leaves Clarissa.
Woolf inhabits the perspectives of a wide swath of London, united by the backfiring of a car, an airplane trailing a toffee advertisement, the crowded omnibus. We find the echo of Clarissa’s movement through the city in Septimus Smith, a “shell-shocked” veteran struggling to find a place after the disorienting violence of the First World War.
The novel culminates in a party and a suicide, linking light and dark, Clarissa and Septimus, life and death, in a profound statement about our capacity to connect to the world around us.
In “Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation,” Rebecca Walkowitz describes Woolf’s narrative strategy as evasive, a willingness to divert our attention from the national, political narratives of postwar London to a party in order to give voice and expression to their political and ethical consequences. Woolf, like other modernist, asks readers to
“…accept, if not embrace, the profanity of conflicting sensibilities — beautiful metaphors and ugly events, acts of kindness and scenes of cruelty, suicide in the afternoon and a party in the evening — and they must accept the ethical discomfort that this profanity may evoke.”
But there is a politics in Woolf’s profanity.
Clarissa Dalloway feels “herself everywhere,” offering a “transcendental theory” of community. She speak of “odd affinities . . with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter . . .” Clarissa’s experience of the world is transformed by those she encounters, but she refuses to recruit them for some grand political narrative.
Indeed, Clarissa rejects the conventional stories we tell about the world. Prompted by her husband Richard’s solicitous care, Clarissa reflects on his obligations as a member of Parliament: “She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice . . . no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians?”
She imagines Richard and her friend, Peter Walsh, joining together in a critical refrain, laughing at her (very unjustly, she thinks) for her parties.
Clarissa feels a greater commitment to her parties than the political plight of the Armenians or Albanians because, for her, they offer a more meaningful way to bring people together. She imagines her parties as an offering to life, an offering “to combine, to create.”
While this moment reveals Clarissa’s political ignorance, her desire to throw parties develops out of her recognition of the other, those whose existence she senses in South Kensington, Bayswater, and Mayfair. Clarissa’s concern is not limited to the local and particular, however; her fundamental recognition of the humanity of those around her suggests that a political awareness and responsibility might develop out of the intimate encounter.
It is her early romantic relationship with Sally Seton and not her husband’s political concerns that inspires Clarissa. She reflects, “Sally it was who made her feel, for the first time, how sheltered the life at Bourton was. She knew nothing about sex—nothing about social problems.” While Clarissa’s parties seem trivial and superficial, they provide the opportunity for a political responsibility to develop out of intimacy.
“Mrs. Dalloway” traces the ethical failures of postwar London’s political responsibility in the tragedy of Septimus Smith’s suicide. Septimus reflects on his relationship with Evans, a commanding officer who died in the war. While the narrative never describes their relationship as sexual, the narrative nonetheless suggests a deep intimacy. Woolf writes, “Septimus drew the affection of his officer, Evans by name . . . They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other.”
Rezia, Septimus’ wife, describes Evans as “undemonstrative in the company of women.” As Septimus’ psychological condition deteriorates, he reveals that his grief over the death of Evans is a cause of his “pathology.”
But Septimus repeatedly insists he feels nothing. His absence of feeling suggests a failure to fully express its significance; his experience does not fit into the narrative of the heroic soldier returning home. His overwhelming grief at the loss of Evans locates Septimus’ experience outside the social and political frameworks that determine how the war becomes meaningful. How he becomes meaningful.
The pompous Sir William Bradshaw emerges to diagnose Septimus and engage him in his program of “proportion.” This way of forcing the world into a recognizable shape is so pervasive that it becomes synonymous, in Septimus’ mind, with human nature. The terrible irony is of course that Bradshaw fails to recognize Septimus’ humanity.
At the moment he decides to commit suicide, Septimus tellingly reflects, “It was their idea of tragedy. . .” Even in death, Septimus realizes their failure to recognize his humanity. He asks, “Only human beings—what did they want?” But Bradshaw and the postwar world fail to respond in kind.
In the midst of her party, Clarissa receives news of Septimus’s suicide, uniting the narrative arcs of the novel’s two central characters. She thinks, “Somehow it was her disaster – her disgrace. It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness, and she forced to stand here in her evening dress.” Clarissa feels Septimus’ death, the death of a stranger delivered secondhand, deeply.
Like the chance encounters with strangers on the streets of London and old friends at an evening party, Clarissa’s encounter with Septimus is a brief but climactic moment in the narrative. Woolf quickly returns to the party, shifting away from Clarissa’s solitary contemplation. Yet their importance persists, reshaping the world around these character.
The novel’s final lines are given to Peter Walsh. He wonders in a contemplative moment of his own, “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? … What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said.” Peter articulates the way in which he owes his being, his ability to experience and contemplate terror, ecstasy, and excitement, to Clarissa. His response is an imperative, an openness to the absolute humanity of the other, because “[i]t is Clarissa” simply “[f]or there she was.”
For Virginia Woolf, the intimate encounter is not merely an aesthetic strategy, a passive means of addressing modernist issues of alienation, isolation, and futility, but an active engagement with humanity.
Dallowayday would give form and shape to a profane politics, a celebration of the light and humanity that emerges from darkness, a way to recognize the tragedy of death amid a celebration of life. A party that might combine and create. In the midst of our own contemporary tragedies, Dallowayday might give us a moment in June to recognize our shared humanity.
Katie Dyson is a PhD candidate in English at Loyola University Chicago. When she’s not teaching or working on her dissertation, she reads the internet.