Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Last semester in my class on Modern Literature, I wrote an essay on Virginia Woolf’s brilliant novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). As with my look at the film Nosferatu (1922) — written for a different class, obviously — I was so pleased with my work that I wanted to share it here with you (because as you all know, I hate to waste a good piece of writing)! But to incorporate today’s post under the heading of entertainment, I have a special Woolf-related surprise at the end of this entry. The topic of today’s essay concerns the reasons behind Clarissa Dalloway’s preoccupation with the “little things” in life. (Cue the 1930 Irving Berlin song.) And for those curious, I did receive an A.
The titular protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) spends the entire story in preparation for a party that she is to host on a June evening in 1923. The events of the novel are contained in one single day – the day of the party – as Clarissa Dalloway’s mind jumps back and forth between the past and the present. Meanwhile, dozens of individual narratives are occurring simultaneously, in the heads of every other character to whom Woolf introduces us. And while every single being in the novel seems to obsess about the little every day things that plague him/her, Mrs. Dalloway seems to acknowledge and relish this. This essay argues that Clarissa seeks to find beauty in the little things because it helps her stave off thoughts of death and her own impending mortality. We will examine this fear as it impacts her relationships, and why she chose to forgo lives with both the passionate Sally and the lovelorn Peter, in favor of an existence with the simple Richard. We will also look at how this fear makes Clarissa find love and religion threatening, inspires her to throw parties, and leads to a three a.m. epiphany that hinges on her connections with two of the novel’s most important characters: Septimus and the unnamed woman in the window.
An appreciation for everyday occurrences would seemingly speak to a love of being alive. However, while Clarissa admits to loving life, she also views it as an awesome responsibility, and Sally and Peter remind her of mistakes she may have made in the past. Clarissa considers with, “overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end,” (Woolf, 185). She has been given this life, and she wants to live it right. Thoughts of Peter Walsh bring up questions about the choices she has made in the life she has been gifted: “‘This is what I have made of it! This!’ And what had she made of it? What, indeed?” (43). She notes that, “gaiety would have been mine all day,” had she married Peter (47). Meanwhile, Clarissa recalls her sudden kiss with Sally Seton as “the most exquisite moment of her whole life,” (35). But she chose lives separate from them both, one seemingly without regrets; why?
Because Richard Dalloway, with “his adorable divine simplicity,” (120), allows Clarissa to focus her energy on the small details, the individual moments, enabling her to block out thoughts of death and appreciate life as she is living it. Interestingly, Clarissa seems completely aware of his impact on her life: “It was due to Richard; she had never been so happy,” (185). In her existence as Mrs. Dalloway, “no pleasure could equal, she thought, straightening the chairs, pushing in one book on the shelf…” (185). She loves and is grateful for Richard because he encourages this type of life for her, giving her flowers to appreciate and moments to treasure; it is a blessing, rather than a responsibility. This is precisely the type of existence that would have been unattainable had she pursued the passionate Sally, who, because of social constructs, is not someone Clarissa considered a viable option, or the hopelessly romantic Peter, who seems to be the antithesis of Richard, the only central figure in Clarissa’s life seemingly content with living in the minutia. Life with Richard is all about these individual moments.
For while Richard helps Clarissa appreciate life’s beauty through a myriad of seemingly insignificant details, Peter looks to his heart, and seeks the beauty of existence through love. This annoys Clarissa: “What’s your love? she might say to him. And she knew his answer; how it is the most important thing in the world and no woman possibly understood it,” (121-122). But in his attempts to crown love as the highest power on earth, Peter completely misses the beauty of the day: the trees the grass, the children, etc. “He would look,” but he never sees any of that, (7). No matter how Clarissa may feel for Peter, his quest to unite humanity with the concept of love alienates him from her. Because love hurts, and “she had to break with him or they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined,” (8). Thoughts of love as an entity that relates and unifies the human condition inevitably lead Clarissa to thinking about the only thing that truly unites humanity: death. And thoughts of death are not conducive to happiness.
The other primary figure in the book that challenges Clarissa’s ability to appreciate life as it is being lived is Miss Kilman, who instead of love, turns to religion as a means of unity. As with Peter and love, Clarissa views this as an intense invasion: of, “… the privacy of the soul,” (126-127). Once again, thoughts of religion are almost inseparable from thoughts of death, and its infringement on the solitude afforded to individuals and their private experiences detracts from the ability to live in the moment. For Clarissa sees the wonder of life not through love or religion, but in the fact that every single living person is entertaining his/her own separate existences. As Clarissa points out, “…here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?” (127). Yet, while her feelings for Peter and his love veer towards a nostalgic affection, Clarissa views Kilman as an enemy, stealing her loved ones away (174-175). Though love can be sidelined as a foolish distraction incapable of inspiring true human connection, Clarissa views Kilman and religion as a direct invasion of her sense of self: an antagonist that blockades happiness. Thus, it is something that should be avoided.
Meanwhile, it is in gratitude for her otherwise joyful existence that Mrs. Dalloway takes delight in planning her parties; they are, “an offering for the sake of offering, perhaps… her gift,” (122). Clarissa views them as a chance “to combine, to create,” (122), “for one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments” (29), and bring together all of these individual and self-contained realities into one place and one time – a shared happening (well, as shared as moments can be) full of life. Yet Clarissa recognizes that because of everyone’s individual mental rooms, every person at the party “was unreal in one way; much more real in the other,” (171). Though this shared moment is one that can be experienced by all, it will not be the same for everyone, because there are contrasting realities, and while human connections are potentially occurring in this joyful environment, the inability to tap into each other’s individual perceptions limits the idea of true knowingness. Again, though they are all in the same room, “here was one room; there another,” (127).
It is not surprising that Clarissa would find it disdainful that in this place of such living, where she is making an offering not to love or religion, but to life itself, someone would, “talk of death at her party—the Bradshaws, talked of death,” (184). Of course, the through-line of the essay, mentioned in the introduction, is that Clarissa is afraid of her own mortality. She is dismayed when, in the middle of her inner justification for making an offering to life, she realizes, “that it must end,” (122). As Woolf uses the ticking of the clock to illustrate the inevitable passing of time, Clarissa spends the majority of the novel saddened by it ending, and completely afraid of anything that reminds her of its inevitability, like Lady Bruton’s aged face, which seemed to represent “the dwindling of life,” (30). “She loved youth,” (177), and has difficulty reconciling its lack of permanence. “They will grow old,” (184), and they will die. She will grow old, and she will die.
This fear of death and resulting reverence for life (which works to counteract the aforementioned fear) is what leads Clarissa to her initial disgrace at learning of Septimus’ death. She not only feels guilty about her survival, but punished for having to, “see sink and disappear here a man… and she forced to stand here in her evening dress,” (185). How can she enjoy life with all of these people around her dying? Well, as mentioned earlier, the answer is the simplicity offered by Richard – the appreciation of life in every single moment. No thoughts of grandiose principles that defy explanations; let her just live. Yet, when being forced to think about death at her party, she realizes that the man’s decision to embrace his end “was defiance [and] an attempt to communicate,” (184). For she recognizes, like love and religion, that Bradshaw is an imposing figure determined to invade the privacy of the soul. “…[T]hey make life intolerable, men like that…” (185). She understands him.
By inferring that Septimus’ suicide was a refusal to give up his soul to the sterile and domineering doctor, Clarissa realizes that Septimus, like she, had made an offering to life. He was showing his appreciation for the little things, like she had done with her party. And while she “hoped he had plunged holding his treasure,” (184), or as the Othello quote illustrates died, “most happy,” (184), she does not pity him (186). For not only did he have the courage to throw it all away, he also reaffirmed the importance of living in the moment. He was free from all of the things that make living difficult, particularly those with an inability to understand the beauty in life’s simplicity. He would not give up his moments to the doctor. So, in his private room, he made his offering to life, and she was glad. Though Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus never actually meet, they are perhaps the only two characters who share an understanding, and he is Clarissa’s most important connection.
This brings us to Clarissa’s second most important connection in the novel. The elderly woman in the room opposite Clarissa, largely a manifestation of Clarissa’s own desire for privacy, is the only person with whom Clarissa can visually connect in regard to her appreciation for individual existences. She often sees the woman “gain her bedroom, part her curtains, and disappear into the background,” (126). Yet, while Clarissa can see all of these things, she has no idea what the woman’s life is like. Clarissa does not know where the woman moves or what makes her go. The mystery of life is not love or religion; it is these individual realities: the old lady, “whom she could see going from chest of drawers to dressing table,” without knowing why, (127). The only time the two women acknowledge each other is a brief lock of the eyes (186), indicating a shared understanding of their inability to truly know one another. They may not ever connect in the way that Peter or Miss Kilman think they should, but it is enough for Clarissa – this acknowledgement of the individual existences housed in their separate and unknowable rooms.
The epiphany that Clarissa has when the clock strikes three is spurred both by Septimus and the elderly woman in each of their individual rooms. The eye-lock with the elderly woman, who, given her age, also has connotations relating to Clarissa’s need to accept the passing of time, gives Clarissa a semblance of unity. It is a unity hinged on the recognition of their inability to ever actually know each other. Meanwhile, Septimus’ suicide helps Clarissa realize that death itself is an offering to life, as long as the living beforehand is appreciated to its fullest. And because of their separate rooms, Clarissa will never know the circumstances for Septimus’ decision, but she understands that he died for life, and thus, she has no need to fear death. For when she dies, it will simply be an offering. And without that fear of death, she can go down and join the symbols of her lost youth. She fears no more the heat of the sun; for there she was.
And for that little surprise I promised you, click here to download a 1974 BBC Radio Recording of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1962) starring the late Elaine Stritch, Ray McAnally, Pinkie Johnstone, and Blane Fairman. (I would have posted the Original Broadway Cast Studio Recording, but you can purchase that here! Besides, we can count this as a sort of belated tribute to Miss Stritch.)
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!