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Eric Auerbach writes in Mimesis that one of the characteristics of the realistic novel of the era between the two world wars is the multi-personal representations of consciousness. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, first published in 1925, the novel delves into the consciousness of many characters. However, one character stands out more than any other: Septimus Smith, a WWI veteran who suffers constantly from the terrible repercussions of trench warfare. The extensive period of time Woolf dwells in his mind is both interesting and puzzling. Why does Woolf choose a secondary character who is insane – what does she hope to accomplish by this decision? Septimus has often been described as Mrs. Dalloway’s double, and on the surface, the comparison could not be stranger. For one, Septimus comes from a poor working background whereas Mrs. Dalloway is the wife of a rich upper-middle class politician. Not only is there a clear social divide, but a psychological one as well. Septimus is insane, whereas Mrs. Dalloway is not. Septimus’ madness seems to serve as a driving edge that crystallizes the distinction between the two characters. However, if we look closer, it becomes clear that the two characters are more similar than different and Septimus’ madness, rather than differentiating the two, only helps to illuminate the similarities more. Thus, Septimus needs to be insane because his insanity helps to show that Mrs. Dalloway and he are actually parallel characters.
One way in which we can use our knowledge of Septimus to understand Mrs. Dalloway is by examining their social roles. Even though the two characters may at first appear very unalike, they share many similar traits and experiences. In the novel, Septimus’ experience in the war and his struggle with the terrifying consequences of trench warfare is juxtaposed with Mrs. Dalloway and her struggle with gender roles and being a stereotypical housewife or hostess. Though the two struggles are ostensibly very different, they are the same at the core – both are fighting against societal conventions and expectations. In the case of Septimus Smith, his experiences in the trenches of World War I and the death of his good friend, Evans, cause him to lose his mind. But, the social order of Britain in the 1920s was not equipped with dealing with insanity – it was frowned upon and largely ignored by society. No one wants to acknowledge the horrifying effects of trench warfare and shellshock, even though the war was the most formative experience of men of Septimus’ generation. Septimus, as an able-bodied young man, is still expected to be a contributing member of society, despite suffering the terrible repercussions of war. This unwillingness to acknowledge and deal with the issue of insanity and shellshock is reflected in opinions of people like Dr. Holmes, who insist “There was nothing whatever the matter” (90). In fact, Holmes suggests to Septimus’ wife, Reiza, that the solution to her husband’s “moodiness” was to go to the Music Hall or take a day off and play golf together (90). Even Sir William Bradshaw, a highly respected physician, suggests sending Septimus off to an asylum because he violated societal norms and standards.
Septimus’ struggle with insanity and the consequences of trench warfare is juxtaposed against Mrs. Dalloway’s struggle against gender stereotypes. In Virginia Woolf’s time, a woman’s identity was made up of largely her relations with others: as daughter, wife, or mother. In fact, the novel begins and is titled Mrs. Dalloway – an acknowledgement of Clarissa’s defining role as the wife of Mr. Dalloway, a prominent politician. Clarissa feels a sort of entrapment in the roles society has given her, “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen…this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (11). She feels acutely the need for private development and refuses to be cast simply as someone’s wife or a party hostess. In a way, her house can be seen as an equivalent of Septimus’ asylum – both institutions are society’s methods of confinement. Clarissa’s struggle for individuality can be viewed as a reflection of Septimus’ struggle for sanity – both violate the traditional structures of society. The social order of the time created standards and forced individuals into rigid roles with certain expectations – that of a wife and a soldier. While Septimus’ struggle for sanity is obvious in the story, Clarissa’s is not. Therefore Septimus and his insanity are needed to show that both characters have a private self that diverges from public expectations of them. Perhaps, the final victory is achieved by Mrs. Dalloway who, when she comes down the stairs at the end of the novel, is finally recognized by Peter Walsh and by others as an individual in herself: “What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? … What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa” (194).
Septimus’ madness also serves an aesthetic purpose. Woolf uses his insanity to point out the modernist notion that reality is disordered rather than structured. She achieves this through her use of style, syntax, and form. The novel employs the stream of consciousness style, which is inherently without order. Not only is it without order, though, it also blurs the distinction between sanity and insanity. When examining passages of consciousness in the novel, if we were to remove all clues that reveal the person whose consciousness we are in, it would be very hard to identify the character being described. That is not to say, of course, everyone’s consciousness is the same as Septimus’ but that the intrinsic qualities of the stream of consciousness style blurs the distinction – almost everyone’s thoughts are without a logical structure, some (Septimus’) more illogical than others. Virginia Woolf purposely chooses this style because it helps to reinforce the similarities between Septimus and Clarissa. For instance, Mrs. Dalloway describes one of her revelations as: “whether it was pity, or their beauty, or that she was older, or some accident – like a faint scent, or a violin next door…she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt” (32) How do pity, beauty, being older, or a violin connect and contribute to her understanding of what men feel? This quotation delves into the heart of the novel, which is not action or dialogue, but rather, moments of time. By focusing on the “moment”, Woolf rejects traditional structures of storytelling with their organized form. Mrs. Dalloway is neither a comedy or a tragedy, or drama or a romance. Woolf also uses syntax, specifically the semicolon, to place free-standing and independent entities into one sentence without logical connection. This also supports the idea of a disordered reality without inherent logic or connection. The semicolon is used adroitly in the following observation by Mrs. Dalloway:
In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars…brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June (4).
This juxtaposition of random and weakly connected objects (swing, carriages, barrel organs, aeroplane, etc.) exemplifies the chaotic reality that Woolf believed we lived in. However, that is not to say there is no order or that stream of consciousness style is solely a random rambling of thoughts and impressions. Although Woolf rejected the traditional forms of order, such as chapter breaks and plot, she employs a much subtler form of organization that draws its inspiration from still-life paintings, namely composition. Reiza’s hat and Clarissa’s party can both be seen as compositions that create coherence from disorder and chaos. Big Ben is another form of order in the novel, dividing the story into hours. Woolf also uses symmetry as a method of organization – the novel is at its midway point when it is midday. Although there are some attempts at organizing the novel, the underlying argument is still that reality is without inherent order – Septimus’ character helps us achieve this understanding. His insanity is the physical manifestation of the chaos in the natural world. Virginia Woolf intentionally blurs the distinction between reality and imagination, order and disorder, to show the intrinsic similarities between Septimus and Clarissa.
Septimus’ insanity can also help us in a psychological analysis of the novel, especially in studying the theme of privacy of soul. Mrs. Dalloway, even as an 18-year-old, yearns for privacy. In fact, she married Richard because “in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house, which Richard gave her, and she him” (7). She craves private development and is offended when Peter Walsh casts her as merely a hostess. Others identify her primarily in her social role as Richard’s wife, as Mrs. Richard Dalloway, and do not see her as an individual. In a way, Clarissa envies the old lady across from her for her privacy and believes that “love and religion would destroy that, whatever it was, the privacy of soul” (127) because love and religion would require sharing and communication.
Septimus is perhaps the best example of someone who has privacy – indeed, he has complete privacy of soul. Even Reiza, his wife, does not know what he thinks most of the time. Virginia Woolf uses the scene in Regent’s park where the couple sits side-by-side on a park bench to show how distant Septimus is from Reiza, despite their physical proximity. In fact, the only time Septimus appears sane in the novel is when he helps Reiza make a hat. He begins by “putting odd colors together – for though he had no fingers, could not even do up a parcel, he had a wonderful eye” (143). Working together with his wife in creating a hat – taking ribbons and beads and wool and making a coherent whole out of the pieces – “was wonderful. Never had he done anything which made him feel so proud. It was so real, it was so substantial, Mrs. Peter’s hat” (144). In making the hat, he inevitably has to share a part of him – his thoughts and opinions – with Reiza and in doing so, extracts himself from isolation and insanity. In the end, Septimus succumbs to madness and in his last act, throws himself out of the window to preserve his privacy of soul against the encroaching figure of Dr. Holmes.
Septimus’ death is necessary in the story because it helps Clarissa realize that extreme privacy of soul in a relationship is not desirable because it is also isolating. At the end of her party, when she goes upstairs, she sees the old lady again. This time, however, rather than envying her privacy, Clarissa comes to realize that although the old lady has privacy, she is also undeniably alone. As Mrs. Dalloway watches the lady get ready for bed, she is suddenly reminded of Septimus’ death: “the young man had killed himself…There! The old lady had put out her light! The whole house was dark now” (186). The juxtaposition of Septimus’ suicide and the old lady going to bed alone help Mrs. Dalloway realize that “she must go back to them [the party]” (186). Clarissa finally understands that it is not desirable to aim for that kind of extreme privacy and reconciles herself with her role as a hostess. Septimus’ insanity and ultimate death help her realize the need for both a social and private self.
Woolf’s desire to portray “consciousness in its natural and purposeless freedom” (Auerbach) is manifest in the characters of Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway. In Mrs. Dalloway, she uses Septimus’ struggle with sanity to illuminate Clarissa’s struggle for individuality in a largely patriarchal society. His death at the end also demonstrates to Clarissa the necessity for both a public and private self. Woolf uses Septimus’ madness to blur the distinction between sanity and insanity and her clever use of the stream of consciousness style – a style without inherent order – strengthen the parallels between the two main characters. Throughout the story, Virginia Woolf uses Septimus to write about Clarissa. Ultimately, we realize that his madness, rather than acting as a wedge between the two characters, juxtaposes them and reveals their inherent similarities.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt. Inc. 1990.
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