Virginia Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway, is considered by most to be a baffling read. This is partly because the novelist, Woolf, experiments with the technique of connecting the character's internal and external dialogues in the text. This is quite obvious in the author's characterization of Mrs. Dalloway or Clarissa, the protagonist of the novel, and Septimus. Many critics contend that both of these characters are a doubles. This idea, of course, comes from the “Introduction to the Random House edition of her novel” which states that, “‘Septimus, who later is intended to be her [that is, Clarissa Dalloway] double, had no existence’” (qtd. in Samuelson 60). This means that both Clarissa and Septimus reflect and mimic each other in characteristics and thought. However, it can be said that there are some fundamental dissimilarities since Clarissa attempts to conform to the societal dictates of post-World War I England as she integrates herself in high society while Septimus defies social conformity, particularly in committing suicide. On the other hand, it can be argued that the similarities between the characters are more potent, significant, and telling, as it pertains to the themes of death and the pressure which society places on individuals to conform. It is important to explore these positions or perspectives, which is one of the intentions of this essay. Consequently, this essay seeks to argue the claim that although on the surface both Clarissa and Septimus appear to have some differences or dissimilarities, as it pertains to their social standing, Clarissa and Septimus are portrayed as doubles in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway because both characters share the same personality traits and their thoughts run parallel to and echo each other, especially as it relates to death and societal pressure or oppression.
Both Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith share the same personality traits, as it relates to anxiety and fearfulness, which is caused and aggravated by societal pressures and oppression. The following reveals an instance where Clarissa is experiencing anxiety and fear before she crosses a street in London: “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” (Woolf sec. 1; par. 15). These are the thoughts of Clarissa while she is on an errand to buy flowers for her party. She decided to do this since her servant, Lucy, had other chores to attend to related to her party. She was previously feeling quite upbeat as she traversed the streets of London before a moment of anxiety sets in while performing her duties as an upper class wife married to a government worker. It can be argued that this moment of anxiety could have been triggered by the fact that Clarissa may have been mentally succumbing to the pressures of being a high society lady, who is expected to perform duties, such as host lavish parties. It may be inferred that this anxiety, which stemmed from the pressures of conforming to social norms, may have been lurking within the depths of her subconscious mind. Moreover, this anxiety allowed Clarissa to find simple tasks such as, crossing the street so that she could go into a shop to buy some flowers for her party, to be quite difficult. This point is in agreement with that expressed by Ralph Samuelson’s article, “The Theme of ‘Mrs Dalloway,’” which argues that Woolf’s novel was more than just created by the author for aesthetic purposes. In fact, Samuelson contends that there is a particular “meaning” or message which is being conveyed by Woolf through her use of various literary or stylistic techniques (58).
Additionally, Samuelson proves his point by indicating some notes made by the author in her Diary which states that in Mrs. Dalloway she desires to “‘criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense’” ( qtd. in Samuelson 60). It is quite evident, based on the above quotation from her text, that Woolf intended to allow her novel to critique the pressures to conform to social norms, as dictated by the social structure or order with a society.
The following illustrates the thoughts of Septimus, as expressed by the narrator: “when a Skye terrier snuffed his trousers and he started in an agony of fear. It was turning into a man! He could not watch it happen! It was horrible, terrible to see a dog become a man! At once the dog trotted away” (Woolf sec. 1; par. 43). A victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, Septimus Smith, who is a veteran of the First World War, is experiencing an episode of hallucination, where he thinks a “Skye terrier” is turning into a man. It can be argued that this hallucinations not only stems from the fact that Septimus is dealing with post traumatic disorder, as a consequence of participating in the war, but, it also stems from Septimus's fear and anxiety, which are effects of his attempts of conforming to societal pressures pertaining to the need to demonstrate his masculinity. This is depicted by the following: “Septimus was one of the first to volunteer.There in the trenches [during war] the change which Brewer desired when he advised football was produced instantly; he developed manliness.” (Woolf sec. 4; par. 89). The above quote gives the impression that Septimus joined the war because he wanted to demonstrate or prove his manliness. Therefore, the analysis of the quote revealing Septimus’s hallucination while the dog draws near to him not only indicates that the character is experiencing post traumatic disorder, but also the effects of societal pressure on the individual to conform to social norms and ideals. Septimus mind has become so pressure and oppressed (as it pertains to conforming to society’s ideals about manhood) that it has affected his ability to handle daily life. It can be inferred that, in this sense, he is similar to Clarissa in that societal pressures prevent him from coping with daily life, but his reaction to societal pressure or oppression is more extreme when compared to Clarissa’s reaction.
Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith both attempt, at least initially, to give in to societal pressure or oppression by making attempts to conform. The following indicates Clarissa conforming to societal dictates: “Those ruffians, the Gods, shan't have it all their own way—her notion being that of the Gods, who never lost a chance of hurting, thwarting and spoiling human lives were seriously put out if, all the same, you behaved like a lady. That phrase came directly after Sylvia's death—that horrible affair” (Woolf sec. 4; par. 69). These are the thoughts which are expressed by the omniscient narrator in the text where Clarissa is seen remembering the fatal accident involving her sister, Sylvia, and which was caused by her father, Justin Parry. Clarissa blames this accident on “the Gods” but instead of outwardly showing an emotion concerning her sister's death and dealing with that traumatic event frontally, she proceeds to absorb herself in performing her duties as an aristocratic lady as she throws lavish parties at her home. The societal pressure or oppression has caused Clarissa to be numb and to ignore her feelings. This absorption in her role as an aristocratic lady is not only an opportunity to numb her emotions, but it is also used as a means by Clarissa to distract herself and to give her a sense of meaning or purpose as she struggles to deal with daily life. This is implied by the following: “she, too, loving it as she did [that is, hosting parties] with an absurd and faithful passion, being part of it, since her people were courtiers once in the time of the Georges, she, too, was going that very night to kindle and illuminate; to give her party” (Woolf sec. 1; par. 6). The above quotation implies that Clarissa not only gets a sense of purpose or meaning to her life from throwing her parties, but she sees it as her “passion” as she perpetuates her aristocratic heritage. As a result, it can be argued that Clarissa uses her party for therapeutic purposes and simply to numb her feelings concerning traumatic events in her life. This, therefore, contradicts the argument presented by Karen DeMeester in her article, “Trauma and Recovery in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway” where she posits that “modernist [literary] forms are so well-suited for depicting the traumatized mind but ill-suited for depicting recovery” (649). Although Clarissa uses her parties to numb her emotions and distract her from feeling any strong emotions pertaining to her sister’s accident, the parties give her something to be excited and passionate about and distract her mind from the dreariness of everyday life.
The following suggests that Septimus was attempting to conform to the societal dictates pertaining to manhood: “When Evans was killed, just before the Armistice, in Italy, Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognising that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably. The War had taught him” (Woolf sec. 4; par. 89). The above quote depicts Septimus numbing himself to the trauma of losing his friend, Evans. After numbing himself to the death, he congratulates himself for doing so. This reveals Septimus succumbing to the pressures of societal dictates which requires that a man not be emotional. This reveals Septimus succumbing to the pressures of societal dictates which requires that a man not be emotional. However, this proved to be damaging to him psychologically, as he on several occasions have hallucinations about Evans, as indicated by the following: “He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself” (Woolf sec. 4; par. 48). Septimus’s refusal to gain closure on the traumatic experience of losing his friend, Evans, by expressing himself emotionally has led to him having a nervous breakdown.
Nevertheless, Septimus uses writing as a means of coping with his madness, as illustrated by the following: “Men must not cut down trees. There is a God. (He noted such revelations on the backs of envelopes.) Change the world. No one kills from hatred. Make it known (he wrote it down)” (Woolf sec. 1; par. 70). It is suggested by the above quote that the author is suggesting an important form of recovery which could be effective for persons dealing with mental illness: journaling or writing. Although it can be argued that Septimus’s writings are incoherent and unintelligible, if he had had a doctor who was trained in using recovery methods such as journaling or art therapy, Septimus would have eventually learned how to formulate and structure his thoughts into a coherent form with the help of a psychiatrist. Consequently, this opposes the argument presented by DeMeester which states that although “[m]odernist literature defines the post-traumatic condition,” it is “ill-suited to depicting recovery” (652).
However, it should be noted that Septimus was not in the position to receive such advanced methods of recovery, which Woolf attempts to highlight in her text. The following is quote from Septimus’s doctor, Sir William Bradshaw: “Sir William said that he never spoke of ‘madness’; he called it not having a sense of proportion” (Woolf sec. 4; par. 119). This quote reveals an attitude on the part of Sir Bradshaw which is one of a scientist rather than a caretaker. Dr. Bradshaw merely observes the condition of Septimus, makes notes, and provides his diagnosis but there is no indication within the text which suggests that Dr. Bradshaw makes any attempt to treat his condition. This is revealed by the following: “Shortly and kindly Sir William explained to her the state of the case. He had threatened to kill himself. There was no alternative. It was a question of law. He would lie in bed in a beautiful house in the country” (Woolf sec. 4; par. 119). Dr. Bradshaw only suggests that Septimus be locked away instead of implementing a more innovative and participatory approach to treating his patient. It can be argued that Dr. Bradshaw represents one of the oppressive forces or societal pressures exerted on an individual through the use of science. Dr. Bradshaw who is referred to as a “priest of science” in the text sees his patient as a science subject rather than a person (Woolf sec. 4; par. 105).
Hence, the author is using the opportunity once again to critique the social order and its failures. Therefore, it can be argued that although Woolf has a seemingly fragmented and disordered narrative there is still meaning and order to be found as in the novel as it relates to the theme of societal pressures and its effects on the individual. Consequently, this opposes the point made by DeMeester in her article which contends that Woolf’s narrative “establishes a rhythm of futility in which thoughts fail to lead to new understandings and conclusions” (651). The conclusion and the message which is clearly made in the structure of the narrative reveals that the culture or the post-World War I English society, through its exertion of pressure, failed Septimus, which led him to perceive suicide as his only option.
Clarissa and Septimus both perceive death as a means of escape from pressures exerted upon them by the post-World War I English society. The following illustrates Septimus attempting to use death as means of escape and defiance: “Just as we were starting, my husband was called up on the telephone, a very sad case. A young man (that is what Sir William is telling Mr. Dalloway) had killed himself” (Woolf sec. 6; par. 83). Sir William tells Mr. Dalloway that Septimus committed suicide. Septimus did this by jumping out of a window (Woolf sec. 6; par. 84). It can be argued that Septimus responded to the oppression or the societal pressures by dying, and refusing to live another day in oppression. Consequently, death was used as a means of escape by Septimus to escape the oppression or pressure exerted on him by society. Clarissa recognizes that Septimus's death “was defiance” and death was “an attempt to communicate” (Woolf sec. 6; par. 84). Therefore, it can be argued that Septimus's suicide was an attempt to defy the social structure and to communicate his protest against the pressures exerted on him by the society.
The following indicates that Clarissa begins to change her perspective about death from a negative one: “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’” (Woolf sec. 6; par. 86). The above quotation is the thoughts of Clarissa, as revealed by the narrator. It can be argued that the treasure refers to Septimus's dignity, which he died with as a result of defying the social order and its pressures. Clarissa also indicates that if someone “were to die now” then it would be best to be happy while someone is living her life right now. It can be implied that Clarissa recognizes that not only is death inevitable, but that death is a means by which to preserve one's dignity and to defy and resist societal pressures.
In conclusion, Woolf in her text, Mrs. Dalloway, critiques the social order, which exerts pressure on the individual to conform to social norms. The author uses the doubling of the characters, Septimus and Mrs. Dalloway, to see how oppression can have a similar impact on different persons of the society regardless of their social standing. Woolf also shows that death can be a means of escape to retain a person’s dignity and to defy pressures exerted by the society.
DeMeester, Karen. “Trauma and Recovery in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.” Modern Fiction Studies 44.3 (1998): 649-673. Print.
Samuelson, Ralph. “The Theme of 'Mrs. Dalloway'.” Chicago Review 11.4 (1958): 57-76. JSTOR. Web. 15 May 2014.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. The University of Adelaide Library, n.d. Web. 15 May 2014. <http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91md/complete.html>.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1925. Print.