The Question of Plot in Virginia Woolf's Novel

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1918

Mrs. Dalloway is a work of literature that can be classified as narrative fiction. That is, it tells a story, or a narrative, that is fictional, or made-up. Novels and short stories are narrative fictions usually structured by a plot. But Mrs. Dalloway is a novel without a plot. This essay examines what this means and why the author might have chosen to eschew this typical narrative convention.

In Aspects of the Novel, Woolf's contemporary, E. M. Forster, explains the difference between story and plot in the following way:

A plot [like a story] is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king dies and then the queen died," is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.

A plot, then, establishes causal relationships between characters, or between characters and events. Moreover, for a novel to be said to have a plot, this series of interconnected events must unify the entire story or determine most of its major happenings. To relate the story of a novel is simply to relate events and situations as they happen, page by page, in a book; to relate the plot involves capturing the reasons why the things that happen happen. While Mrs. Dalloway certainly establishes causal relationships between characters and events, the novel cannot be said to have a plot because a network of causality does not unify the entire book.

On the contrary, the book takes great trouble to establish how it is different, in this respect, from most novels. Chance and coincidence, instead of purposeful interconnection, structure the book. Peter Walsh, a very important character, arrives by chance at Clarissa's on the day of her party. Sally Seton, another important character, arrives at Clarissa's party unexpectedly and also by chance. Septimus Warren Smith is also a major character in the book who is only tangentially related to the other major characters. The connection of Septimus to the other characters is determined by chance and locale, not by any social connections these characters have in common. Septimus and Clarissa pass each other by chance, as both are on Bond Street at the same time. Septimus and Peter Walsh also pass each other by chance, just outside Regent's Park, neither knowing that the other exists. Indeed, it is the single day, the Wednesday in June 1923, that unifies the book, and nothing else.

Plots make what happen in a novel seem natural and inevitable. But plots are really just constructed by authors, and so the events depicted in novels are not inevitable at all. Woolf's plotless book of chance and coincidence plays on the way that plot is a series of "coincidences" made to look like naturally or casually connected events by the careful work of a controlling author.

Most stories that are written and read have plots. The writer makes certain decisions about characters (their personalities and qualities), and about characters' relations to other characters or to social forces and events. The author then comes up with a plot built upon the likely responses and actions of character types in relation to other character types or in relation to social happenings. The author, in this way, feels that it is possible and desirable to predict how certain types of people will think and behave. The author also feels that certain social forces are describable and likely to have certain predictable effects on certain types of persons. The author who settles on a plot, then, is confident that he or she...

(This entire section contains 1918 words.)

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knows a great deal about human nature and about how the world works.

This confidence about personality type, social type, and how the world works was never more developed than in the novels of the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. Typical to these novels is a narrator who tells the reader all about the particular character—his or her thoughts and desires, his or weaknesses and strengths. These narrators also explain why a character acts the way he or she does. Authors, through their narrators, showed themselves to be experts—experts in psychology and sociology. In fact, it is no surprise that the academic sciences of sociology and psychology arose around the turn of the century; people and their lives were, quite literally, becoming sciences. Woolf discusses this science of writing, or this novelistic science of psychological and social knowledge in her essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown."

"Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" introduces a fictional character, a Mrs. Brown (who is riding in a railway carriage), and then shows how the various well-known and popular writers who immediately preceded Woolf would have presented her in their fiction. These major novelists she terms Edwardians, as King Edward was then the king of England. The writers in question are H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy.

Since Mrs. Brown is a character who appears to be in straightened circumstances and is most likely not particularly well-educated, Woolf parodies Wells' style in the following way:

Seizing upon . . . the unsatisfactory condition of our primary schools with a rapidity to which I can do no justice, Mr. Wells would instantly project ... a vision of a better, breezier, jollier, happier, more adventurous and gallant world where . . . these fusty old women do not exist.

Her criticism of Wells, then, is that he is a utopian, a writer not so much interested in presenting the intricacies and mysteries of character and personality, but rather more interested in expounding his theories and views about how society can be perfected. Galsworthy, Woolf asserts, would no sooner introduce such a character than launch into an authorial tirade "[b]urning with indignation, stuffed with information, [and] arraigning civilization." Again, the intricacies and instabilities of individual characters are left behind, and the author's views about the world and about certain typical character types are expounded at length instead. What Bennett would do, says Woolf, is bury this character under a mountain of descriptive details—what she is wearing, where she comes from, what the railway carriage she is riding in looks like, and so forth. Once again, left behind would be any understanding of the character's complexities.

Only the new Georgian writers such as herself, says Woolf, or such as James Joyce or D. H. Lawrence, have returned literature to its proper domain, where inquiry and delicacy are as important as the author's views about what can and should be done to ameliorate the condition of society. (She terms herself and her contemporaries Georgians because King George succeeded King Edward in 1910.)

Given Woolf's sense of the overweening confidence and all-knowing attitude of the writers that preceded her, her decision to write a novel without a plot can be understood. To eschew or avoid plot, within this historical and intellectual context, means to suggest that an all-knowing stance is not always productive. Since deciding on a plot means having definitive views about social types and social forces, writing a plotless novel suggests that perhaps it is better, at times, to be a person who approaches the world as a questioner, as one seeking knowledge and enlightenment, as opposed to one who already knows everything or who has answers to solve every social problem.

Since the reader of a novel tends to intellectually identify with the stance of the narrator, the reader of one of Bennett's novels, for example, is made into an all-knowing, god-like figure. The reader, like the narrator, is in a position of knowing more than any character and of having full understanding of how the world works. The reader of a novel without a plot, in contrast, is put into the position of one who must explore and question the relationship between things. Not everything is answered for this other reader; not everything is known. The reader of a more experimental, plotless novel is a reader who is encouraged to question reality, to not assume full knowledge. This other reader is one who is asked to think and explore, as opposed to simply receive knowledge and apply it; this reader is encouraged to ask why things are the way they are and how they might be changed, as opposed to simply having answers and ideas presented to him or her on a platter.

Writers such as Woolf believed that psychological and social knowledge in novels was becoming too pat, that character and plot were becoming predictable, mimicking the latest treatise written by a politician, a sociologist, or a psychologist. There are deeper reasons, however, to turn away from an all-knowing, scientific approach to character and plot. At issue was not simply remembering to be a thinker and explorer, but also the question of whether humankind was in control to the extent it was convinced it was. To know social types and how the world works means to be in control of the world. But was humankind in such full control?

If humankind wasn't in such full control, then the need to think hard about social problems was still a priority, and feelings of over-confidence about the state of knowledge were a danger. For instance, Europeans of the nineteenth century believed in progress: humankind was inventing machines and building institutions and cities that were making life on earth better for all. But, asked writers like Woolf, was humankind really progressing? Was the story or plot of progress true to reality? Was scientific knowledge really explaining and controlling the world in beneficial and predictable ways? Things changed, to be sure, but was humankind progressing morally, in the way that really mattered? Were more people truly better off than before? In fact, the industrial revolution, with all of its machines, may have made work easier and faster, but a new class of impoverished factory workers merely had replaced a propertyless agricultural peasantry. Technology brought airplanes and railroads, but it also made war that much more efficiently destructive.

Not all writers or artists contemporaneous to Woolf who were making interventions into typical artistic forms thought the same way. Many of them celebrated technological advances. What most agreed upon, however, was the need to pause and take stock of science's progress, to make sure that it produced the benefits promised, and not a new type of misery. Thus, to refuse plot is to refuse the typical stories of the time, the typical stories people were telling themselves about the world and progress. Since people make sense of the world by telling stories about the past and the present and about how things work, to refuse plot is to intervene into social narrative and insist that the old stories or the old ways of explaining social life need adjustment or examination.

By not constructing a plot, Woolf offers her readers the opportunity to make up a new story about social life. Readers surprised at such a startling departure from typical novelistic form are invited to ask why there is no plot, what it means when an author decides to be different. If a reader is not told how everything in a novel is tied together, it is up to him or her to do the work. In this way, the reader of Mrs. Dalloway can figure out for him or herself why things are the way they are, or how things might have been, or could be, different.

Source: Carol Dell'Amico, Critical Essay on Mrs. Dalloway, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Dell'Amico teaches English at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Another Criticism of the New School

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 602

My remarks last week about the younger novelists have aroused some complaint, and it has been said to be odd that I, for years the champion of the young, should turn and rend them. I will therefore proceed further. What I have already written is nothing compared to what I will now write.

The real champion of the younger school is Mrs Virginia Woolf. She is almost a senior; but she was the inventor, years ago, of a half-new technique, and she alone, so far as I know, came forward and attacked the old. She has written a small book about me, which through a culpable neglect I have not read. I do, however, remember an article of hers in which she asserted that I and my kind could not create character. This was in answer to an article of mine in which I said that the sound drawing of character was the foundation of good fiction, and in which incidentally I gave my opinion that Mrs Woolf and her kind could not create character.

I have read two and a half of Mrs Woolf's books. First, The Common Reader, which is an agreeable collection of elegant essays on literary subjects. Second, Jacob's Room, which I achieved with great difficulty. Third, Mrs Dalloway, which beat me. I could not finish it, because I could not discover what it was really about, what was its direction, and what Mrs Woolf intended to demonstrate by it.

To express myself differently, I failed to discern what was its moral basis. As regards character-drawing, Mrs Woolf (in my opinion) told us ten thousand things about Mrs Dalloway, but did not show us Mrs Dalloway. I got from the novel no coherent picture of Mrs Dalloway. Nor could I see much trace of construction, or ordered movement towards a climax, in either Jacob's Room or Mrs Dalloway. Further, I thought that both books seriously lacked vitality.

These three defects, I maintain, are the characteristic defects of the new school of which Mrs Woolf is the leader. The people in them do not sufficiently live, and hence they cannot claim our sympathy or even our hatred: they leave us indifferent. Logical construction is absent; concentration on the theme (if any) is absent; the interest is dissipated; material is wantonly or clumsily wasted, instead of being employed economically as in the great masterpieces. Problems are neither clearly stated nor clearly solved.

The new practitioners have simply returned to the facile go-as-you-please methods of the eighteenth century, ignoring the important discoveries and innovations of Balzac and later novelists. How different is the new school of fiction from the new school of painting, with its intense regard for logical design!

Lastly, there is absence of vital inspiration. Some novelists appear to have no zest; they loll through their work as though the were taking a stroll in the Park. I admit that I may be wrong on the second count; I may be blind to evidences of a design which is too subtle for my perception. But I do not think that I can be wrong on the first and third counts.

And I admit that some of the younger school write very well. In the novels of Mrs Woolf some brief passages are so exquisitely done that nothing could be done better. But to be fine for a few minutes is not enough. The chief proof of first-rateness is sustained power.

Source: Arnold Bennett, "Another Criticism of the New School," 1925, reprint, in Virginia Woolf: The Critical Heritage, edited by Robin Majumdar and Allen McLaurin, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 189-90.

Theme of Insanity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3540

In her ... novel, Mrs. Dalloway, [Woolf] continues to work out her problems of theme and form along the lines laid out first in the short stories and Jacob's Room. Thus most of the "ideas" in Mrs. Dalloway are carried over from Jacob's Room, though she adds the major theme of insanity. But that is also simply a development of two ideas in the preceding novel: (1) that there must be a positive (loving) connection between the inner and outer life; and (2) that institutional power is the expression of a negative (unloving) connection, Jacob's death being attributed to war, a manifestation of institutional mania for power over individuals.

Millions of Jacobs died in 1914-18, Woolf insists, because of this mania in high places. Now, in Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf shows us another victim—Septimus Warren Smith, who is clinically insane as a result of four years in combat. Smith falls into the hands of two medical practitioners whose energies are directed toward dominating their patient instead of healing him.

Clarissa Dalloway, too, is passing through a mental crisis, precipitated partly by a recent severe illness. During the single day in which the events of Mrs. Dalloway take place, the stories of these two—Clarissa and Septimus—are intertwined, though they never meet. Clarissa moves away from isolation toward an acceptance of life in all its puzzling complexity; Septimus moves ever deeper into isolation and finally suicide.

The narrative present of Mrs. Dalloway spans most of a bright, warm June day in London some five years after the war of 1914-18. But the tunneling into the past (Virginia Woolf's expression) goes back for thirty years. Readers familiar with The Voyage Out, in which the Dalloways appear briefly, will find no mention of that part of their past in this novel. All events, both past and present, build toward Clarissa's dinner party, when they are brought together in new relationships. The following summarizes briefly the major characters and action leading up to the party.

Mrs. Dalloway leaves her house in Westminster to buy flowers. On the way, she meets an old acquaintance, Hugh Whitbread, a functionary in the royal household. Later she observes a royal car passing through the streets and an airplane skywriting. Septimus Smith, a man in his early twenties, is seated on a bench in Regent's Park with his Italian wife Lucrezia (Rezia). He has spent four years in the war and is now mentally ill. He sees the skywriting and thinks that "they" are trying to get messages to him from the dead. Dr. Holmes, a general practitioner, has advised Mrs. Smith to get her husband interested in "real" things. But they are now on their way to see a specialist, Sir William Bradshaw.

Peter Walsh, in love with Clarissa thirty years ago, leaves the Dalloway house, where he has talked to Clarissa for the first time in many years, and walks toward Regent's Park. He follows a woman, out of sexual fantasy, until she disappears into a house. In the park, he naps, sitting on a bench. Leaving the park, he passes Septimus and Rezia and outside encounters a street singer, an old woman, singing a love song.

Richard Dalloway, Clarissa's husband, Member of Parliament, is at Lady Bruton's for lunch. She is a prominent society hostess who likes being involved with government affairs and moving masses of people around in various projects of her invention. Hugh Whitbread, Clarissa's old friend, is also a guest. Lady Bruton wants these two men, both involved in government, to help her with one of her projects.

Septimus and Lucrezia keep their appointment with Sir William, who sees that the case is serious and advises Lucrezia to place her husband in a sanatorium. By now, Septimus identifies both doctors as his special persecutors. Both are, in fact, more interested in exercising power than in treating individuals.

Elizabeth Dalloway, Clarissa's daughter, about eighteen, leaves the Dalloway house for an afternoon with Miss Kilman, a woman of extraordinary unattractiveness. She is a religious zealot and has been proselytizing Elizabeth. Clarissa also fears that there is an unhealthy sexual relationship developing between the two. But as they take tea, Miss Kilman loses her hold on the girl. Elizabeth leaves the tea shop alone, boards a bus, and rides through London on a kind of voyage of independence, from which she returns "calm and competent."

Septimus and Rezia are in their sitting room. She is making hats, he going through the notes he has made of messages from the dead: "do not cut down trees; Universal love; the meaning of the world." Dr. Holmes chooses this moment to call— Dr. Holmes who "seemed to stand for something horrible to him. 'Human nature' he called him." As Holmes forces his way past Rezia into the room, Septimus leaps to his death. The novel concludes with the long section about the Dalloway party that evening, with the horror of Septimus's death offset by Clarissa's renewed vitality.

As Clarissa goes through the hours before her dinner party, she is besieged by memories of the past—stirring up doubts about her marriage to a man caught up in the endless round of politics; doubts about her daughter; and, most of all, doubts about herself. For she has just recovered from an illness, and to walk out into the bright June day is for her like the beginning of a new life—except for memories and the demands of the future that lie heavy upon her.

What she remembers is "scene after scene at Bourton," the country house where she grew to womanhood. Thirty years ago at Bourton, Clarissa and Peter Walsh had been much together. Clarissa came to feel that Peter's insistence on sharing everything, and his critical assessments, were finally intolerable, and she broke off their relationship. Yet there had been something vital between them, and in the years afterward Clarissa would never be certain she did not still love him.

Clarissa was also drawn to the energetic, attractive Sally Seton, who had shocked old Mrs. Parry at Bourton by running naked down the hall to the bathroom. Clarissa's memories of Sally are still, after thirty years, full and rich—how Sally had given her a flower and kissed her on the mouth just before Peter came upon them at the fountain one evening. The emotionally charged involvements with Peter and Sally were factors in Clarissa's decision to marry the steadier Richard Dalloway. And this decision, too, she believes thirty years later, had been a wise one. Peter would have destroyed her with his constant intrusions and critical remarks; and Sally would have dominated her.

These were Clarissa's memories as she went about preparing for her party that night, not just of events and relationships, but also a recollection of the atmosphere in which they occurred: the excited conversations, the laughter, the intuitive awareness of cross-purposes. These had been signs of life intensely felt, and she remembers how intense they had been.

But memory is inferior to present experience. What Clarissa loves now, she is certain, is before her eyes in the bright June morning: trees, and mothers with babies, the activity in nearby streets, the park itself appearing to lift its leaves "brilliantly, on waves of divine vitality." Clarissa sees this creative energy flowing from nature and shaping the present moment, the vital force of which is frequently symbolized by trees.

But the most attractive aspect of vitality appears in humans going about their business and their play—the "conduct of daily life" described in Jacob's Room as better than "the pageant of armies drawn out in battle array." A vision similar to that observed by Jacob, and identical in meaning, is experienced by Elizabeth when she cuts loose from Miss Kilman and in her excitement sets out to explore the city. She likes the uproar of the streets; she seems to hear the blare of trumpets, as if the crowds are marching to military music. The noise of the people in the streets is a "voice, pouring endlessly." This would carry them along. There is a Dickensian delight in movement and sounds in the description of Elizabeth's recommitment to life on her own, echoed by what Peter Walsh encounters on the warm June evening as he walks toward Clarissa's house—people opening doors, entering motor cars, rushing along the streets.

Despite these manifestations of human energy in masses, Woolf establishes the vital quality of life most strikingly in two solitary old women—one the street singer heard by Peter Walsh, the other the occupant of a room across the way from Clarissa's house. The old street singer's song at first is hardly intelligible; certainly she is no picture of vitality— nearly blind, and in rags. Her song, however, celebrates the invincible power of love, how love had lasted a million years, bubbling up like an ancient spring spouting from the earth, greening things, fertilizing.

Still remembering how once in some primeval May she had walked with her lover, this rusty pump, this battered old woman . . . would still be there in ten million years ... the passing generations—the pavement was crowded with bustling middle class people—vanished like leaves, to be trodden under, to be soaked and steeped and made mould of by that eternal spring.

The whole passage about the street singer is one of those Woolf developed more through the devices of poetry than of prose. Its effect depends on the persuasiveness of the imagery to transform the reader's feeling for the old woman, whether pity or revulsion, into wonder and admiration. A tree without leaves, she is still an instrument from which the wind of creative energy elicits a song: "Cheerfully, almost gaily, the invincible thread of sound wound up into the air, like the smoke from a cottage chimney." It is an evocative piece of writing, persuasive indeed—but not convincing. The metaphors of the rusty pump and the cottage are obtrusive. The reader sees what they are meant to do and feels the poetry of them, but with reservation.

The second incident involving an old woman occurs in the course of the party at Dalloway's house. In developing the significance of this scene, Woolf employs a more successful technique. She does not attempt to move the reader by poetic statement to believe that the old woman represents life without despair. The scene is depicted in a matter-of-fact way. As Clarissa watches an old woman in her room across the street preparing for bed, there are none of the verbal associations with love, as in the street singer's song, to make their frank appeal to the reader's emotions. Yet the significance of what Clarissa sees, though tentative even in her mind, is sufficient to offset the despair that has been rising in her.

This episode occurs after Clarissa hears at the party about the young man (Septimus) who has killed himself. Thinking about his suicide, Clarissa feels that the disaster, the disgrace of Septimus, is hers. Guilt floods her: "She had schemed; she had pilfered." But, thinking that she doesn't deserve to be happy, nevertheless she is. Now she rejects the triumphs of youth, and has committed herself wholly to the process of living—"creating it every moment afresh."

On a previous occasion, when Clarissa had been sorting out her thoughts about the religious zealot Miss Kilman, she had seen the old woman climb the stairs to her room, alone, as if self-contained in her life. To Clarissa there had been something solemn in it. But with Miss Kilman and Peter Walsh on her mind—those two proselytizers of religion and "love"—she had thought of the old woman in connection with that kind of love and religion that can destroy the privacy of the soul the old woman seemed to have. The "supreme mystery" was this: "here was one room; there was another. Did religion solve that, or love?"

Now at the party, as she watches the old woman again, seeing her move around, Clarissa is fascinated. Several things are coming together in Clarissa's mind—the idea of the privacy of the soul, and the mystery of the separation of human lives; these things joining with her awareness of the activities, the laughing and shouting, going on all around her at the party. Suddenly no longer in despair, she no longer pities herself, nor the young man who had killed himself. As the old lady's light goes out, Clarissa thinks of that whole house, dark now, with all this activity going on around it. Putting out the light was like dying. It did not stop the activity of living; the pageant of life went on.

Clarissa takes comfort in this train of thoughts because of her "theory," confided to Peter Walsh in the old days. They had been riding up Shaftesbury Avenue in a bus when she felt herself everywhere—not "here, here, here," she said, tapping the back of the seat, "but everywhere." Her comfort in the relationship that she felt between the old woman across the way and the young man who killed himself derives from that part of her theory about the affinities between people and how one must seek out those who complete one: the "unseen part of us" might survive, "be recovered somehow attached to this person or that."

The line from Shakespeare, "Fear no more the heat of the sun," appearing several times, explains Clarissa's cryptic remark about the young man's suicide: "She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away." One need not fear the disasters of the physical life. Clarissa feels that if the young man had thrown his life away, she has caught it in hers. If the young man could complete his life in hers, then Clarissa could complete her life in others. It was a mystery—"here was one room; there was another"—but no longer a despairing mystery. This quality of excitement bubbling up from new-born vitality is what Peter Walsh recognizes in Clarissa at the book's conclusion: "What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said."

Virginia Woolf celebrated this ongoing vitality in many ways in her novels—welling up in love, at parties, and in the ordinary business of everyday life. She placed it in opposition to the mania of those in positions of power to control the course of events. In Jacob's Room, these were the men in clubs and cabinets. In Mrs. Dalloway, signs of power are everywhere: the royal coat of arms emblazoned on Hugh Whitbread's dispatch case; the automobile and a face "of the very greatest importance" glimpsed against its dove-gray interior; the ceremonial marching of troops; and the prime minister himself at the Dalloways' party.

Accompanying these symbols and panoply of institutional power, there is the pervasive sense of the damage done to human lives by the individual wielders of power: the waste of Hugh Whitbread's genuine qualities in the servilities of his position as a court functionary; the persistent meddling of Lady Bruton, utilizing her position in society to move people around as if they were pieces in a little game of her own. When Lady Bruton naps, we are informed, her arm assumes the position of a field marshal's holding his baton.

This malicious observation springs out of Woolf s indignation, but one of the measures of her skill as a novelist is the ability to discipline strong feelings into the lasting instrument of art: for instance, the subtle paralleling of the dove-gray car of Sir William Bradshaw to the royal car. Sir William, the psychiatrist who takes over Septimus Smith from Dr. Holmes, is another manifestation of the established order as malevolent. His sinister compulsion to dominate those who come within his control is linked through the case of Septimus to the political powers in Whitehall: it is "they" who provided the shambles of war in which his sanity was damaged, and it is Sir William who completes the job.

We are never allowed to forget the war: the painful picture of Lady Bexborough opening a bazaar with the message in hand of her son's death in combat; the company of soldiers marching to a cenotaph; and through it all the presence of Septimus Smith, a shambling, broken figure, who signals institutional guilt whenever he appears.

Virginia Woolf exposes relentlessly the mania to dominate of people like Lady Bruton, Sir William, and Dr. Holmes. The clinical madness of Septimus is represented as a consequence in their manipulations—indirectly, as in the case of Lady Bruton's political and social schemes, and directly in the perverted "healing" of Bradshaw and Holmes.

Septimus is the victim of a war-induced neurosis. Having volunteered early in the war of 1914-18, he suffered for four years the frustration of his idealistic impulse to "save England for Shakespeare." Withstanding the successive traumas of combat, he is stricken by the survivor's guilt after his friend Evans is killed. Crippled within, he seeks out Lucrezia to marry her, with the instinctive knowledge that her health is what his sickness needs. She appears to him as the tree of life,

as if all her petals were about her. She was a flowering tree; and through her branches looked out the face of a lawgiver, who had reached a sanctuary where she feared no one.

His instinct was right and she is good for him, but because she is inexperienced and a foreigner, she is not capable of protecting him against the malpractices, condoned by society, of such "healers" as Holmes and Sir William.

Sir William, a large distinguished-looking man, would not appear to be insane in any clinical sense. But he makes everyone profoundly uneasy in his presence. He is a self-made man, we discover, who has permitted himself to be shaped by the materialistic values that reward domination. In treating his patients he invoked all the forces of society to gain their submission. "Naked, defenceless, the exhausted, the friendless received the impress of Sir William's will. He swooped; he devoured. He shut people up." In his compulsion to put people away, Woolf casts Sir William as an agent of death. For insanity, as she describes it, is isolation from people, from things, from all the stuff of life— death, in short.

Sanity she identifies with life—the physical substance of it—women nursing babies, the blare of trumpets, legs moving energetically down the street. Even Richard Dalloway holding Clarissa's hand, though not the passionate moment of the kind he had imagined when he resolved to say I love you, is a moment of shared physical intimacy—it lives.

Peter Walsh, on the contrary, creating lurid fantasies around the woman he follows through the streets, is to a degree insane, to a degree dead, in that what he submits himself to is isolation: "All this one could never share—it smashed to atoms." The emptiness of Walsh's fantasy is like that of Katharine Hilbery's dream in Night and Day—her "magnanimous hero" riding his horse by the sea— a waste of imaginative power.

Walsh is torn between wanting to share and wanting to isolate himself. His life had been a constant vacillation, chasing one woman, then another, interspersed with "work, work, work." So that when in the end he is strongly moved by the vitality of Clarissa, it is not certain that this commitment is anything more than physical attraction or more than momentary. What is certain is that Clarissa has come through her own struggle against self-isolation and confirmed her rebirth into the health of shared existence.

In giving the "world of the sane and the insane side by side" (her primary objective in this novel), Virginia Woolf shows the sane reaching out to life—like Clarissa, recognizing in the old woman across the street someone whose life touches hers. Though her treatment of this idea is lyric, she does not attempt to screen the unpleasant or tragic with lyricism. Death is the dissonance that keeps her song complex and intriguing. In Clarissa, for instance, there is double awareness of mortality— through her recent serious illness and through having witnessed in girlhood the death of her gifted sister, crushed by a falling tree. The tree, so often in Woolf s writing the image of persistent life, by this accident reinforces the ambiguity of existence—like the light of Night and Day, it contains a portion of its opposite.

Many circumstances in Mrs. Dalloway, including the terrifying medical experience of Septimus Smith, were drawn from Virginia Woolf s life. The original intention to have Clarissa kill herself—in the pattern of Woolf's own intermittent, despair—was rejected in favor of a "dark double" who would take that act upon himself. Creating Septimus Smith led directly to Clarissa's mystical theory of vicarious death and shared existence, saving the novel from a damaging imbalance on the side of darkness. Virginia Woolf's success in using her own madness as a subject for fiction, evidently provided the necessary confidence for attempting the equally delicate naterials of her next novel, To the Lighthouse, which concerned her unhappy childhood and the memories, still sensitive, of her parents.

Source: Manly Johnson, "Mrs. Dalloway," in Virginia Woolf, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 52-63.


Critical Overview