One of Virginia Woolf’s greatest novels, Mrs. Dalloway, permits her readers to enter into the most intimate aspect of human existence, the private stream of consciousness. Human thought is never stagnant. Instead, these internal conversations prove to be rapidly moving, existing as constant forces within all beings. Woolf’s stream of consciousness has a tendency to fixate on the thoughts and speech of the upper class, which allows their apprehensions and priorities to occupy a greater part of the work. In this way, as the novel progresses, Woolf’s sly annotation of a post-Victorian society emerges. Through the characterization of Clarissa Dalloway, Peter Walsh, and Septimus Smith, among others, Woolf aptly paints a picture of England in the early 20th century. In a post World War I society, gray and no longer glorious, her careful critique of the upper class of England’s society shows the mechanisms behind its inability to express itself and the stifling imposition that work to emotionally oppress its citizens.
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Whilst drafting Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf wrote in her diary, “I want to criticize the social system and to show it at work, at its most intense” (Samuelson 60). England’s upper class has always been a class that allows admittance of few and discourages the emergence of the individual. “Conform, conform, conform,” cries the choir of the elites. Woolf does not convincingly argue admittance is the dilemma; instead, it is the elite’s prudish and old-fashion view of individualism. Their constant disregard for those who speak out or go against the grain is a result of socialization.
The governing class sequesters the Septimus Smiths or Doris Kilmans of the world (Zwerdling 72). When such individuals become a nuisance for society, governing officials like Sir William Bradshaw, who “had to support him police and the good of society” make sure “these unsocial impulsesâ€¦ were held in control” (102). In a sense, Bradshaw works as a janitorial agent of society, keeping the unclean and disturbing aspects “safely” at a distance. Woolf creates an interesting parallel amongst her characters within the novel. The degree of acceptance within society seems to correlate with the ability to internalize one’s most intense feelings. The misfits- Septimus, Miss Kilman, and Peter (to some degree) – all buckle under the pressure of such things and outwardly expose their feelings. They lack the emotional self-control the upper class aggressively advocates for its members.
Peter Walsh is outwardly passionate in all the wrong ways. When Clarissa rejects his marriage proposal, he flees to India and is unsuccessful. Most of all, he will never be Richard Dalloway; the perfect gentleman who marries Clarissa. He is far too emotional and shrugged off as someone who tries too hard and feels too much (Blanchard 301). Lady Bruton, among others, says, “He had come back, battered, unsuccessful, to their secure shores. But to help him, they reflected, was impossible; there was some flaw in his character” (107). Hugh Whitbread says he will mention Peter’s name to so and so, “but it wouldn’t lead to anything-not anything permanent, because of his character” (108). He does not exhibit the characteristics or behaviors of the ideal man. This flaw in his character is not extreme insanity like Septimus; instead, it is being overtly passionate in every endeavor and never finding success.
Woolf constantly seeks to the answer the question of how an individual becomes just that. How exactly is an individual shaped or deformed by his social environment, by how historical forces shift his life and its course, by how class, wealth, and sex help to determine his fate (Zwerdling 69)? This resonates with the characterization of Septimus. When Septimus attempts to speak, but stammers in Dr. Bradshaw’s consulting room, Sir William says, “Try to think as little about yourself as possible” (98). This shows not only the upper class’ disregard for feeling but also its support in oppressing it. An important degree of socialization occurs at such a young age and this is part of the problem. Boys are pushed into roles considered masculine, while girls are persuaded in ways that shape them to be more feminine. Richard Dalloway even struggles to tell Clarissa he loves her as he presents the roses to her, despite his personal determination on his walk home to tell her, he fails miserably. Such a simplistic task, the utterance of those three words, “I love you” proves to be far too much. There is this supposed unconditional understanding between a wife and husband and the heartfelt utterance is unnecessary. Society oppresses the expression of feeling within its men. Men were not to feel, let alone cry easily like Peter or openly, as Septimus does in the park. Instead, they must fulfill societal expectations of stoicism, manliness, and self-reliance.
What better tool than a war to implement these noble characteristics within a generation. Nine years prior to this day in June, young men like Septimus left home, marching off with romantic views of war and ideas of courageous battle. The passionate, romantic writer Septimus returns home from battle instead with the inability to feel, “â€¦He became engaged one evening when the panic was on him- that he could not feel.” (86) This causes him insufferable guilt and places him on a slippery slope, walking the fine line between sanity and insanity.
Woolf blames the war and society for Septimus’ worsening condition. His traumatic experiences make him incapable of feeling and he first senses this when his friend Evans perishes. He does not feel sad or forsaken. He just exists and continues with the war, “The War had taught him. It was sublime. He had gone through the whole show, friendship, European War, death, had won promotion, was still under thirty and bound to survive. He was right there. The last shells missed him. He watched them explode with indifference.” (86) This indifference to life, most likely caused by posttraumatic stress disorder, spills over and overwhelms him.
Septimus quotes Shakespeare hours before his death as an acceptance of his final fate, “Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more. He was not afraid.” (139) Septimus is shell-shocked and this atrophy of his psyche meets its demise as Dr. Holmes comes to collect him. In his final moments, Septimus considers his life and his means for escape,
“There remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury-lodging house window, the tiresome, the troublesome and rather melodramatic business of opening the window and throwing himself out. It was their idea of tragedy, not hisâ€¦ He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun was hot. Only human beings- what did they want?… Holmes was at the door. “I’ll give it you!” (149)
Septimus flings himself violently down on to the area railings and ceases to exist. Woolf’s perfected use of the private stream of consciousness shows the irrational and darting thought of an insane man, moments before his death. Society sought to put him away for good and Septimus’ final rebellion is beautiful, despite how horrific his mangled remains may have looked upon Mrs. Filmer’s railing. The bitter irony that he must destroy himself in order to save himself shows the tragedy of oppressive forces overwhelming the isolated individual (Blanchard 302).
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World War I left the entire country shell-shocked, but the governing class seems to conspire to deny its pain and significance. Septimus appears to be the only one cognizant of the losses. Clarissa even says, “This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing” (9). Tears are never far from the surface, and sadness lurks beneath the busy activity of the day. Most people manage to contain their tears, according to the rules of society. Admitting to the horrors of war is not acceptable; citizens mask their fears and sorrows and continue with the mundane task of everyday living.
Lady Bruton favors Richard, hence Clarissa’s unique acceptance among the elite. Externally, Clarissa conforms but she secretly wishes to resist. She lives for extravagant parties and fantasizes about the warm reception she receives from her guests, always people of societal and political importance. She lives for unity amongst her guests. She longs to receive a request to attend the lunches of Lady Bruton as Richard does, but she never will. Clarissa’s ability to internalize her slight insanities and intense emotions separates her from Septimus and Miss Kilman. Society has taught her to repress and this has assisted her in becoming the master of façade. She constantly moves from past to present in her stream of consciousness. Should she have married Peter? No, no she says, he would criticize her far too much. Instead, she believes Richard allows her to be the person she truly is.
Such sad irony lies in her internal conversation. The real Clarissa only exists within the confines of her own mind. Richard does not allow her to be as is she is, because he does not truly know her. Clarissa can never lead the lifestyle that would make her most happy. She cannot be with Sally Seton whom she passionately desires. This girlhood attachment is as intense as Miss Kilman’s feeling for Elizabeth (Zwerdling 77). With Sally, she could explore an unconventional side of being a girl. Sally would take risks and was somewhat dangerous, in the eyes of Clarissa, and this ignited her love for Sally even more. Sally represents an escape from the socialized, typical behavior of being a girl in post-Victorian society. Sally smoked cigars and wished to reform the world. They planned to take on the world, together. In the attic Clarissa escapes to delve into her consciousness and reminisces about her happiest moments in life. Looking back, Clarissa reflects on the “purity” and “integrity” of her feelings for Sally. “But this question of love, this falling in love with women. Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?” (32) She repeats to herself “She is beneath this roof” (34) in reference to the memories and happiness she feels when Sally crosses her mind. Women could not fathom being together because of archaic religious morals and rituals, serving as the backbone of post-Victorian thoughts and lifestyle. Society would not permit this immoral behavior and would go out of their way to prohibit anyone’s attempt to do so. Clarissa’s love for Sally serves as another example of socialization oppressing its citizens.
Woolf uses a Bildungsroman in her characterization of Sally, Peter, and Clarissa. She traces the process of socialization from the extended moment in which each was intensely alive- young, brash, open, taking emotional risks- to the stage of conventionality (Zwerdling 78). The social classes in which each character resides makes it clear that these intense feelings are not acceptable. Gradually, as each branch out into the cold world of England, these feelings are kicked, crumbled and denied by society. The young revolutionary spirit within them all becomes buried and instead they emerge, as Sally does at Clarissa party, as just another boring, prudish member of England’s high society.
A glimpse of the old Clarissa, her true being, emerges in hearing the news of Septimus’ suicide from Bradshaw. Though she never knew of Septimus, she leaves her party guests for a moment to collect her thoughts. She so easily relates and understands his means of escape. “A thing there was that mattered; a thing wreathed about chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance.”(184) Clarissa and Septimus are both in sympathy with the idea of self-destruction as a way to preserve their integrity against forces in their common social world that threatens to annihilate them completely as individuals. They both recognize the need for the individual to remain strong and withstand the conforming pressures of society. This is why Septimus and Clarissa see Bradshaw as such a threat, a man of cold scientific findings, he does not believe in the necessity of spiritual and intellectual privacy nor the dignity necessary in human personality. Instead, his patients are muddled together as subjects, not people, nor individuals with feelings. Septimus’ character is the conscience of Clarissa. Septimus did not allow himself to become another marginalized member of society, unwilling to be oppressed for seeing the world as it truly stands.
“Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the wilderness. The rack and the thumbscrew are applied. Human nature is remorseless” (98). This chilling passage exemplifies the eternal numbness of society. Woolf’s critique of the upper class’ inability to express itself is superb. The mechanisms behind society’s inability to express itself and the stifling imposition that work to emotionally oppress its citizens is seen through the characterization of Clarissa, Peter, and Septimus, painting a picture of English society in the early 20th century. The defiance Septimus shows and the way Clarissa lives vicariously through his death, leaves the reader with a sense of hope. Woolf clearly wishes to convey that hope is not lost as long as humanity works to defy conformity and individuals remain true to themselves. Society’s pressure to conform is not nearly as strong as the individuals who rebel against it.
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