Mrs Dalloway

(Versión en español aquí)

About Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) was born in London on the 25th of January of 1882. Thanks to her parents (her father was a well-known writer and mountaineer and her mother a famous model) she had the chance to meet personally some of the most famous Victorian writers, which she always thought they were very narrow minded. While her two brothers received and education in Cambridge, Virginia and her sister received a private education at home. Her mental health was very fragile: she had her first break down when her mother died, when she was aged 13. The death of her step-mother and step-sister and the sexual abuse committed by her two step-brothers were not helpful for her mental health issues. When her father died, the Stephen family moved to Bloomsbury, where they created the homonymic artistic and literary group. She got married in 1912 with Leonard Woolf. Together, they decided to buy a hand press and after a while, in 1917, they created the famous Hogarth Press. She published a great amount of her job in this publishing house and it also allowed her to make contact with the work of foreign authors that were still not translated to English, as they were in charge of making these translations. The precarity of her mental health was a constant in her life, and it was because of it that they decided to move to Sussex in 1940, to avoid the stress of the life in London. Nevertheless, she committed suicide in 1941, drowning herself in the river Ouse.

Virginia started her career as a journalist, although afterwards she wrote novels and essays. She broke down all the preconceptions in literature in her search for a way to express forgotten subjects such as mental illness.

Historical context

Virginia started writing Mrs. Dalloway in June 1923, just five years after the end of the First World War. The Great War was a huge blow for the British society. It deromanticized all the concepts before associated to the war and traumatized the public opinion. Men with PTSD (in that time known as Shell Shock) were counted as thousands, and obviously the society was affected in a very negative way when, instead of the war heroes they were expecting, the men who came were emaciated with hallucinations and convulsions, and, in some cases, they were not even able to walk straight. In addition, none of the parts involved in the war won anything. In fact, in the case of England, the economy entered in a deacceleration process, among other things because of the debt that was generated by four years of conflict. All of this caused and existential crisis which always tends to arouse questions and transformation. Grandiloquent questions, such as “What is happening with us?” “What is going to happen with London, with England or with the Empire?” But also more pragmatical questions: What are we going to do with those with Shell Shock? In this matter, even though it was indeed recognised as an illness, it was thought as something physical and not psychological, and, even with that, the official position in UK was to leave it out. The situation was completely unfair for those with Shell Shock in the front: if they had a panic or anxiety attack and because of that they were not able to carry on with an order, they would face a martial court, and the sentence was death in not few cases. Another important thing happened during that time: the female suffrage was approved in UK during 1918, although women were allowed to vote only if they were over the age of 30 while men could vote if the were over 21. Also, most of the universities in UK accepted to award women with “equivalent” degrees to those of men. The paper of the women in society was strongly called into question, and with it, the one of men. Finally, we have to think that “modernity” was appearing in the everyday life. Cars were replacing horse carriages, cinema, that had appeared only twenty years before was arriving to big cities, airplanes were a brand new thing… A lot of now quotidian things were still unknown in many places of the world, and they were starting to take part in the life of people who lived in cities such as London.

About Mrs. Dalloway.

I have to say that Virginia’s writing style is very dense. Mrs Dalloway is a book incredibly full of critic and symbols, and the language used on is at the same level. Each sentence has been written down there for a reason, and it gives you more than you could think at first. All of this make reading the book extremely interesting, but it can also make the reading slow at some points. About the technical aspects of the novel, I think the most significant one is that there is no division by chapters. The way Virginia sets the rhythm of the book is by using the bells of the different clocks that appear during the book. Also, in the English versions there are twelve little spaces, one for each hour of the day, showing again that the only structure of the book is the passage of time.  

The book takes place in a summer day during a heat wave in London. Being able to transmit that feeling of being in London during a heat wave is vital for Virginia, as the city plays the role of the link between all the characters, it is a mean to get rid of all the gender, class and even age differences. As there is no omniscient narrator and we only have the inner monologues of the characters, the city forms part of the book as a living being, constantly moving, where all the characters move with her, running into each other which gives a natural way to change from one to another. Again, those same clocks that before were setting up the rhythm of the novel, they are now used to let us see that London is continuously moving, evolving at the same time all her inhabitants evolve. The use of inner monologues is a very interesting resource that also shows us one of the main differences between the interwar literature and its predecessor, the Edwardian literature. While the first one focuses in the inner perspectives, the introspection, the personal memories, etc, the later puts the attention on the external details that surround and affect people. For Virginia this is nothing else but superficial, and it does not allow you to understand the human mind.

Is also because of the usage of inner monologues to tell us the story that is so important to see what the characters generate in other people. Peter, Richard, Sally, Hugh, etc they help us understand Clarissa, they show us all the associations they have with her, while the doctors and Rezia help us understand Septimus. In addition, the casual encounters between characters are very meaningful, as they set up the mind of two characters in the same place, so it is easier to see their different perspectives.

Another resource that is used by Virginia to make a point in how important is to understand the mind of the different character is the plot, or better said, the absence of such a plot. The book tells us the day of Clarissa Dalloway while she is preparing a party she is going to host that night. We can see this is an everyday situation, in which there is nothing extraordinary. Nevertheless, the fact that the situation is so common give us the chance to understand ordinary people of that society and the realities of the society as a whole. In that sense, Clarissa Dalloway is a 52 years old high-class woman; the stereotypical educated, quiet, strict woman, the perfect Victorian dame. Richard Dalloway, her husband, is a conservatory politician a little bit older than her, again the perfect Victorian gentleman, while Peter Walsh is a socialist son of landowners in India who is not able to find his spot in the society. While Clarissa is the image of the sanity and the sense of proportion, Septimus is the image of the madness. He is going to be the mirror image of Clarissa during all the book, showing us the other side of the coin. He will make the contrast with the sense of proportion of Clarissa and all her guests. Also, he is going to be the nearest part to the Great War, as he is a veteran with Shell Shock who suffers from hallucinations due to the horror lived. His wife, Rezia, is an Italian woman overtaken by the events of her marriage. Sally is Clarissa’s childhood friend, and she shows us the empowered side of women, as, even if she is not a de facto activist, she refuses to just follow what she is supposed to do, at least not without asking questions.

The title of the book is already a statement. It is not the first time that a book has the name of the main character, but this is not her full name, but her married title, Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa explains explicitly how she feels invisible to the world, that she is no longer herself, but an extension of her husband. There are even situations when people address to her as Mrs Richard Dalloway, not even by her name. She lives in a constant inner contradiction: on the one hand, she feels that the only way of living is to accept and follow the ordinary roles, on the other, she is not truly happy with that. Clarissa admires and is jealous of Sally’s spontaneity and happiness, but she does not allow herself to be like that, she is completely dominated by the sense of proportion, the excessive Victorian moderation. Sally is also why Clarissa doubt about her sexuality, although she reaches the conclusion that there are two kind of passions: the one a woman feels for her husband and the one a woman feels for another woman, being this last one the only one that truly creates a fire in her. Having into account that the book was written in 1923, the fact that women´s sexuality is a subject is something very pioneering, and even more when they are speaking about a sexuality out of the stablished.

In his role as mirror image of Clarissa, Septimus is the male character that make us doubt the most about the male roles. Septimus himself speaks about the sentimental congestion he was feeling. As a matter of fact, he could not even mourn Evan, his best friend, as he had to continue with his duty in the front. He never showed any feelings related with the war, even though it was a dreadful experience. In fact, these shocking experiences make him have an existential crisis: Septimus wonders what is the meaning of living in a world so full of wickedness, he cannot stop thinking about the nightmares he has seen, and he even doubt if it is worthy to have a child in a world like this. Even with that, he still maintains the face of a strong man, until one day, in the middle of an argument with Rezia he explodes, and all those feelings he had never managed end up as a PTSD outbreak. Then, if the values associated to the masculinity can derive in such an extreme situation like this, are they so good? Again, the rigidity of the Victorian principles arises.

In a less extreme way, Peter Walsh wonders himself if the perfect gentlemen idea makes any sense, and we can see how he despises it, although it looks that it is because he does not fit in that image. On the other hand, Richard also shows us the lack of emotional management men have to deal with. There is a moment when he is bringing flowers to Clarissa, and all the way back home he is thinking in how much he loves her, and that he should tell her about that more often. During all the path, he looks like a romantic man, dreaming with telling his loved one everything he feels. Nevertheless, when he arrives home the situation is completely different of what he was dreaming of: he is not even able to put word to his feelings, probably because he has never seen anybody doing something like that, and he stays quiet, helpless, hoping that his silence and the flowers are enough for Clarissa to understand. Containing your feelings is something fundamental to be a true British gentleman, and that is too high a price to pay, even if these people were not aware of it.

Speaking about women, I must mention the flowers and the attic. Different flowers are constantly appearing in the book. In fact, it starts with Clarissa going to buy flowers in Bond Street. They are a symbol of the body of women as well as a symbol of femininity. In that time, menopause was related with the lost of womanhood, and Clarissa is a 52 years old woman, probably already menopausal. That is why we see the roses about to wither. In the same fashion, houses are associated with the human body, and even more when they are related with female characters. Then, the charmless attic almost empty where Clarissa has been sleeping for a while is again a sign of her womb, which is empty too. But regarding to the attic, there is something I found more interesting than that. In her feminist essay “A Room of One´s Own”, Virginia speaks about the need of women of having a room for themselves if they want to create. It was very meaningful for me to see how Clarissa says that, even if the attic is grey and unattractive, at least is a room where she read without giving any explanations. We can see how the main character of the book values that room of one´s own of which Virginia would speak some years later.

The book is so full about feminist allusions that if I mention all of them I would never finish. Nevertheless, I would like to speak about one part that felt too close with nowadays’ situation. In a moment, Sally makes a comment that makes Hugh feel embarrassed, and he decides to kiss Sally as a revenge when they are alone. (We have to think that the connotations of an unwanted kiss were even stronger at that moment than they are now). When she reports it, the general reaction is saying that she is laying, as Hugh is a perfect gentleman that would never do such a thing. Nowadays, almost one hundred years after this novel was written, we see situations too similar to this one, reaching a point where even if the victim presents audio-visuals proofs her word is still questioned. The fact that injustices described in a hundred-year-old book are systematically repeated today is very significant and should make us think about the path we are taking (or choosing not to take) as a society.

Even though the main character is Clarissa, my favourite character was Septimus. First, finding a case of Shell Shock in a book exposed in such a human way is very interesting. With Septimus and all the character that are surrounding him, Virginia shows us the way society saw mental illness, something that she suffered herself. As a matter of fact, the doctors did not treat Septimus as a sick person, but as an attention seeker that is just physically exhausted. They do not understand why Septimus is not able to wake up from bed, and they compare his situation with having a bad day. All this generates a lot of negative feelings from Septimus towards the doctors, as they only make him feel worse. These feelings are the cause of his suicide in order to avoid seeing them again. Septimus himself does not understand what is wrong with him, and in the moments of sanity he wonders why he is not able to give Rezia what she deserves as his wife. Finally, Rezia is a woman divided and completely confused about the situation: on the one hand she can see that his husband is having a hard time, and that he is not able to react by himself, on the other hand, doctors are constantly denying that there is anything wrong with Septimus, and so she feels that her husband is just a selfish person who does not love her. With this four characters, Virginia is not only showing the situation that mental ill people suffer, but she is clearly stating her opinion on that: the situation is so wrong that none of the people involved is improving.

Septimus is feeling alone, neglected, far from all the people that are surrounding him. He feels even castrated because of the experience he lived: he does not want to bring children to this world, but he is not even able to bring this topic with Rezia, as he would be denying her the miracle of being a mother, and also, he would be failing in one of the most important tasks as a man. Nonetheless, he is not an isolated case at all. As I mentioned before, there were thousands of men with PTSD, the problem is that they were abandoned, they were forgotten on purpose by the society. It says a lot about Virginia’s courage and how she could not stand injustices the fact that she included a character with Shell Shock in a book written only five years after the end of the Great War, trying to reproduce as truly as she was able how he was feeling.

Being able to speak faithfully about mental illness was a key part in Virginia´s work. I have to say that the way everything is treated in this book is impressive. Septimus’ setbacks are so human, so easy to empathise with… The last scene when Septimus is finally able to laugh again with Rezia but then he receives the doctor´s visit and he commits suicide is simply devastating. One can really understand the anxiety and all the doubts he is having, the need of committing suicide even if he does not really want to die, he wants to live. I think it is one of the best moments I have read in a lot of time, and one of the most accurate regarding to how a mentally ill person feels for sure.

Some ideas such as the Empire, the colonies, british politics, religion, class differences were fundamental in the interwar british society, and so it is normal that they are treated in a book which wants us to know the depths of its characters. Sometimes Virginia choses to show us in a subtle way, for example with the contrast between Peter Walsh and Richard, Clarissa and Rezia or Clarissa’s daughter and her teacher, but there are some other situations when Virginia is more straightforward and she questions an idea in a more accessible way by using a soliloquy of one of the characters.

Conclusion

To sum up, I have really enjoyed reading Mrs Dalloway. I believe it is a very demanding book, though. Not only because of the vocabulary used, but also because of the amount of details and her writing style. It is not a book to read when you are tired, and I also think that it asks for the reader to have some historical notions, in order to really understand the importance of some details, for example, how relevant and pioneering was to include a character like Septimus. For those who like to read between the lines and who enjoy to overthink and analyse, I would say this is their kind of book, as it is a book with two stories: the story you can read and the story you can infer from all the comments and thoughts the characters have about their society.

In my opinion, the stronger thing of the book are the characters. They are so real and strong that even way after finishing the book they stay with you. Septimus is a modern tragedy, a subversion of the classic war hero; he is a character treated so humanly that encourages you to rekindle his story again and again. Clarissa, on the other hand, is the speaker of a whole period, of all women who feel forgotten, of all women who felt and feel out of place, waiting for a change that never comes.

For there she was

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