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Mrs.Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was set in London in 1923, five years after the end of the First World War. World War I, which took place between 1914 and 1918, had devastating effects on the lives of soldiers and civilians, to a degree never experienced before. Mrs.Dalloway takes place in an imperial, urban London marked by its technological modernity and lurid ideas regarding political and social order. The city of London functions as another character in the novel and its relation to the other characters is critical for the understanding of the personalities of those characters. In addition, the city setting steers the technique of free and indirect discourse. The city of London in Mrs.Dalloway as a medium for understanding of societal dynamics is comparable to the function of Paris in Manet’s painting “Music in the Tuileries,” which portrays the demeanor of the Parisian Bourgeoisie; furthermore, the use of the urban milieu as the focal point in the novel and the painting reflects the modern nature of both works.
Preparing for her evening party, Clarissa Dalloway wanders through the streets of London, observing her surroundings and reminiscing about her personal life. Clarissa Dalloway loves life, people, and parties. Crossing Victoria Street in the beginning of the novel, Mrs.Dalloway remarks about her love for London. Although Clarissa forcefully clings onto life with her parties and gatherings, she is ironically apprehensive about death. While she stands at the Park Gates looking at the omnibuses in Piccadilly, she thought about always “feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (Woolf 8). Walking towards Bond Street, she ponders about her own mortality and wonders whether it would matter if she suddenly died. Clarissa’s thoughts about death while joyfully walking through the crowded streets of London and gathering people at parties show her alienation. Additionally, while walking up Bond Street, Clarissa feels that she is not Clarissa Dalloway but rather just Mrs. Richard Dalloway, an extension of her husband. The fragmentation of Clarissa’s individuality is apparent in the modern world of London.
Mrs.Dalloway’s personal interactions with the city depict not only her personality but also her social status as an upper class, privileged woman. Mrs.Dalloway reflects upon the beautiful June day, “the King and Queen were at the Palace. And everywhere, though it was still so early, there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats; Lords, Ascot, Ranelagh and all the rest of it; wrapped in the soft mesh of the grey-blue morning air…” (Woolf 5). The presence of the King and the Queen along with the English Lords place Clarissa within the British upper class society with affluence and tradition. Then, Mrs.Dalloway walks up Bond Street, a street with “its flags flying; its shops; no splash; no glitter; one roll of tweed in the shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years; a few pearls; salmon on an ice block” (Woolf 11). The bustling Bond Street, without even a single straw on its pavements, symbolizes the modern and urban streets and establishes the context of Clarissa’s surroundings characterized by wealth, patriotism, and the tradition of the British Empire.
Just as Clarissa’s association with her surroundings delineate her personality, the reactions to his surroundings of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran suffering from shell shock, reflect his insanity, apathy, and alienation. Septimus’ perceptions of the external world mirror his inner strife and mental illness. The sound of the motorcar backfiring draws his attention. Thinking that he is responsible for the traffic jam caused by the motorcar, Septimus is terrified and thinks that the world is about to “burst into flames” (Woolf 15). Septimus’ reaction to the motorcar clearly shows that he is suffering from shell-shock. Following Dr.Holmes’ advice to distract Septimus by drawing his attention to the outside world, Lucrezia forces Septimus to look at the aeroplane writing “toffee” in the sky. When Septimus looks up at the sky, he interprets the message as a signal for him and starts to sob from the beauty of the letters (Woolf 21). In addition, while sitting at the park, Septimus feels “the leaves being connected by millions of fibers with his own body” (Woolf 22). Septimus’ perspective of the world formed by his peculiar connections to nature shows his inherent solitude. As the day progresses, Septimus has moments in which he enjoys the exquisite beauty of life just as Clarissa Dalloway. Sitting at Regent’s Park, he watches the trees waver and “to watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy” (Woolf 69). Moments before his suicide, Septimus “did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot” (Woolf 149).
However, Septimus simply does not understand what human beings want from him and when Dr. Holmes entered the room, he “flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs.Filmer’s area railings” (Woolf 149). Septimus’ interactions with his surroundings and nature reveal his emotional instability and disillusionment. Failing to acknowledge shellshock as a legitimate condition experienced by returning soldiers, the London society and the medical community render Septimus to his suicide. Septimus epitomizes the isolation and the fragmentation of the individual in a modern world.
In addition to functioning as a character in the novel, the city of London aids the free and indirect discourse utilized by Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf employs the technique of the free and indirect discourse in which the third person narrator penetrates into the consciousness of the characters often by focusing on objects or places within London. When Mrs.Dalloway hears the motorcar backfiring while walking up Bond Street, Septimus who is sitting with his wife at Regent’s Park also hears the noise. Upon Septimus hearing the backfiring, the narrator shifts to Septimus’ consciousness as he relates the sound to the war. In another instance, when Lucrezia diverts Septimus’ attention to the airplane writing in the sky, Mrs.Dalloway sees a crowd of people looking at something in the sky and the narrator shifts to the world of Clarissa. Lastly, Elizabeth Dalloway’s omnibus ride back to Westminster connects to the world of Septimus. “Going and coming, beckoning, signaling, so the light and shadow which now made the wall grey, now the bananas bright yellow, now made the Strand grey, now made the omnibuses bright yellow, seemed to Septimus Warren Smith lying on the sofa in the sitting room” (Woolf 139). London links the two disconnected plots present in Mrs.Dalloway, one revolving around Clarissa’s party, and the other one revolving around Septimus.
Comparable to the function of London in Mrs.Dalloway, the city of Paris plays a central role in the “Music in the Tuileries”, painted by Manet in 1862. The painting displays a crowd scene at the Tuileries Garden in Paris. The attire of the crowd insinuates the presence of the members of the Parisian Bourgeoise. The men are wearing black topcoats and tall hats while the women are wearing bonnets, flowing dresses, and gloves. In the “Music in the Tuileries” Manet captures a moment of the gentility experiencing the urban and cultural events of the time period. The snapshot of the city of Paris and the members serves as a microcosm of Parisian Bourgeois life and reveals the sentiments of the people of the time period. The facial expressions of the painted individuals don’t indicate joy or happiness. Rather, the individuals seem to be focused only on their individual experiences and give the impression of detachment and alienation.
Likewise, Mrs.Dalloway demonstrates similar themes of social boundaries and detachment. The Bourgeois class depicted in the painting is similar to the class hierarchies portrayed in Mrs.Dalloway. Moreover, the alienation featured in the painting is analogous to the alienation experienced by the characters in Mrs.Dalloway. Although Clarissa composes herself in the front of the mirror and throws parties in order to maintain her social status and appearance, she is lonely at heart. Condemned to isolation due to the inability to feel and communicate after the war and suffering from modernity itself, Septimus commits suicide. Clarissa sympathizes with Septimus and interprets his death as a final attempt to communicate.
Although both Mrs.Dalloway and “Music in the Tuileries” explore the themes of anonymity, loss of individuality, and alienation, their mediums of expression, the novel and the painting differ. In Mrs.Dalloway, Virginia Woolf reveals the alienation of the characters through their consciousness, inner monologues, and interactions with other characters. In contrast, the painting is a visual representation or a transformation of the observations of the painter with regards to modern life. The modernist painting consists of a more ambiguous mechanism and is up to the interpretation of the viewer. In the “Music in the Tuileries”, Manet employs a technique of unconventional, deliberate blotchiness which leads to only certain figures being defined in the painting. The faces of most of the people featured in the painting are simple blotches of paint, dots, strokes, and lines. The lack of definition in the facial expressions of the people in the painting, a characteristic of anonymity resulting from contemporary urban life, reflects the loss and reduction of individuality. Another stylistic character is the lack of a clear structure in the painting along with an obvious flatness that causes the eye of the painter to shift from one corner to the other, mimicking the mobility and commotion of the city life. Lastly, the arbitrary placement of vibrant color patches along with the sense of light provided by the trees conveys the faced-paced motion of the city life and the ephemerality of urban experience. The painting provides a visual embodiment of isolation and loss of individuality within the Parisian crowd. The image of the modern city and city life is a central theme present in modernist work. The metropolitan life portrayed in Mrs.Dalloway with its innovative technologies such as the motorcar, the commercial aeroplane, and the ambulance establish the contemporary setting of the work. The intricate setting of London and the associations of the character with the city provide the framework for understanding the individual worlds of the characters. Further, Virginia Woolf breaks the manacles of conventionality with her use of free and indirect discourse that defies traditional, linear plot line by jumping from the consciousness of one character to another. The subjective third person narrative voice immersed in the consciousness of the characters provides the readers a deeper understanding of the minds and actions of the characters. Similarly, Manet defies the norms of the traditional painting by intentionally focusing on certain figures while blurring the facial expressions of the others, simplifying the people to almost a caricature. Both Virginia Woolf and Manet employ unorthodox techniques in their work that distort the uniformity of traditional works and inspire creativity and innovation in a modernist world.
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