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Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway is known for its flowing, stream-of-consciousness narrative form that connects external events and the thoughts of all of the characters. Ironically, one of the novel’s most prominent themes is that of individuals struggling with privacy of the soul. In particular, the main characters Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith serve as opposing yet connected personas that typify and develop the constant conflict between privacy and communication.
On an exterior level, Clarissa and Septimus have many distinctive traits, including gender, social class, and level of sanity. Clarissa is an older, upper-class woman struggling to maintain her private emotions while interacting reasonably with those around her. While contemplating how she interacts with others, Clarissa reflects that she “had tried to be the same always, never showing a sign of all the other sides of her- faults, jealousies, vanities, suspicions” (37). However, earlier she notes that “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown… not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (10-11). The contrast between these two statements manifests Clarissa’s struggle between protecting the intimacy of her emotional state while fostering a sense of self among her social circles.
On the other hand, Septimus is a World War I veteran who has lost his sanity due to severe post-war depression. Septimus appears to have a similar struggle to that of Clarissa, yet he focuses more on achieving a stable state within his own mind rather than maintaining communication with others. Septimus’ wife, Rezia, attempts to stimulate his interest in the external world, “for Dr. Holmes had told her to make her husband… take an interest in things outside himself” (21). However, Septimus makes a different observation about himself, stating that “for now that it was all over, truce signed, and the dead buried, he had, especially in the evening, these sudden thunder-claps of fear. He could not feel” (87). Therefore, while Clarissa mainly struggles with attempting to communicate with others, Septimus avoids interactions with society and focuses on the presumed loss of his inner emotional state. The diversity between the two characters serves to strengthen the universality of the conflict they experience.
An early event in the text demonstrates the aforementioned differences between the two figures. When an official-looking vehicle passes through the streets, much excitement stirs as people wonder if the car contains the Queen or Prime Minister of England. Clarissa, who seems to have faith in her society and government, imagines “she had seen something white, magical, circular, in the footman’s hand, a disc inscribed with a name,- the Queen’s, the Prince of Wales’s, the Prime Minister’s?” (17). However, Septimus has a different take on the situation: “And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree… and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him” (15). Rather than arousing interest or excitement in Septimus, the car reminds him of the destruction and loss of faith associated with the government during the war, and he attempts to internalize his fears.
Despite their outward differences, many traits typify both Clarissa and Septimus during their development in the novel. For instance, both characters have an inclination towards literature, particularly that of Shakespeare. Clarissa views two lines of a Shakespeare play through a store window in the exposition of the plot: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/ nor the furious winter’s rages” (9). These lines are repeated and reflected upon often by both Clarissa and Septimus later on, and Clarissa particularly adapts the lines to her own fear of aging. Similarly, Septimus often analyzes his life by referring to Shakespeare, such as his statement after remembering his experiences in the war: “Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language-Antony and Cleopatra- had shriveled utterly” (88). Like Clarissa, Septimus is able to apply literature to his own development. The characters’ inclination towards such writing implies that they are prone to analyzing people and events on a more in-depth level than those that are ignorant of literature, such as Clarissa’s husband.
Eventually, both Clarissa and Septimus reach a moment where each character faces the respective side of the conflict that they have been contemplating. Interestingly, this moment takes place at the same time for both characters. With Rezia’s constant imploring, Septimus eventually yields to her desire for him to see a psychiatrist: “At last, with a melodramatic gesture which he assumed mechanistically and with complete consciousness of its insincerity, he dropped his head on his hands. Now he had surrendered; now other people must help him” (90). Soon after this statement, the reader realizes that Clarissa undergoes a similar transition: “twelve o’clock struck as Clarissa Dalloway laid her green dress on her bed, and the Warren Smiths walked down Harley Street. Twelve was the hour of their appointment” (94). Just as Septimus must communicate with other members of society, Clarissa puts down her social dress, actions symbolizing an exchange between privacy of the soul and social interactions.
In addition, at some point in the narrative both Clarissa and Septimus undergo a brief moment of clarity. Clarissa’s moment occurs early in the text, after she contemplates her husband’s lunch appointment with a woman friend. The narrative describes this moment:
It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores! Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed (32).
Clarissa appears to be experiencing a deep reflection on how the soul can, at times, connect to that of another person, such as when one is in love. The images of the revelation as an “illumination” or a “match,” similar to the fire that Septimus saw when the car drove by, connote a moment of intense emotional experience. During this moment, Clarissa realizes that it is possible to share the intricacies of the soul with another person.
Similarly, Septimus experiences a moment of clarity when he is spending time with Rezia, right before he commits suicide. As he is helping Rezia make a hat for a friend, Mrs. Peters, Septimus feels a brief period of sanity: “None of these things moved. All were still; all were real … Miracles, revelations, agonies, loneliness, falling through the sea, down, down into the flames, all were burnt out” (142-143). He helps Rezia fix the hat, and afterwards describes how “never had he done anything which made him feel so proud. It was so real, it was so substantial, Mrs. Peters’ hat” (144). The stillness of Septimus’ visions asserts that he is temporarily returned to sanity, and the images of the flames burnt out imply an absence of the inner turmoil that earlier had haunted him. In the same way Clarissa experiences an emotional connection, Septimus feels a connection to his wife and the outside world, away from the private thoughts of his soul. He realizes it is possible to communicate and produce “substantial” accomplishments, an idea juxtaposed to his earlier ignorance of society and inability to relate to others in any meaningful manner. These moments of clarity help each character by balancing their constant reflection on one side of the conflict with a truth about the other.
Clarissa and Septimus also share similar moments of reflection when they observe an elderly woman or man from afar. Clarissa views an elderly woman neighbor who lives alone and contemplates: “she watched out of the window the old lady climbing upstairs. Let her climb upstairs if she wanted to; let her stop…Somehow one respected that- that old woman looking out of the window, quite unconscious that she was being watched. There was something quite solemn in it” (126). Though the woman has complete privacy of her soul, “solemnity” most likely stems from the fact that the woman is alone and is unable to communicate with others, the other part of life that is necessary for humans as social beings. The woman withdrawing and climbing the stairs symbolizes her removal from any sort of connection to the outside world. Clarissa respects this act because she has been incapable of entirely avoiding communication, and instead spends the day throwing a party to stimulate further social interaction.
Likewise, Septimus views an old man descending a staircase out of a house before he throws himself over a balcony to commit suicide. Septimus’ death is described: “Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. “I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously” (149). While the old woman Clarissa observed was ascending stairs and hiding from the outside world, the old man is descending the stairs and exposing himself to society. Septimus cries “I’ll give you!” to assert that he has maintained control over his own private soul, and only will expose it when he wants to, rather than when the doctor probes him. Septimus commits suicide by leaving the house, an action symbolic of leaving the privacy of the soul and revealing himself to others. Thus, Septimus’ death is his final method of communicating with the world while keeping his interior protected. The old man and old woman that Clarissa and Septimus watch help clarify relations with either one’s soul or outside society by typifying experiences that other people have that relate to the protagonists, and have similar views with respect to privacy and communication.
A final connection is made directly between Clarissa and Septimus in the climax of the novel, when Clarissa comments on Septimus’ suicide. She decides that: “Death was defiance…an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death” (184). Clarissa feels responsible for the suicide: “Somehow it was her disaster- her disgrace. It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness, and she forced to stand there in her evening dress” (185). It appears that Clarissa and Septimus have decided to handle their private lives in different ways. While Septimus made one final communication with society while still preserving the privacy of his own soul, Clarissa has forgone much privacy for the societal figure that she has become by marrying Richard, symbolized by the reference to her dress. Interestingly, both figures realize that preserving one side of the conflict involves somewhat sacrificing the other; however, the choice over which is more important is left up to the character, as well as the reader, to decide.
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