You are on page 1of 8

Jimena Ramrez Martn del Campo Literatures in English VI Charlotte Broad Mrs Dalloway: an approach to sanity and insanity

Virginia Woolfs Mrs Dalloway is defined by two major themes that give shape to all the events, characters and aspects of this novel: I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide: the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side (Woolf, p. 207) Sanity and insanity set this novel in action and come to life through the voices of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith: Suppose it to be connected in this wayMrs D. seeing the truth, SS seeing the insane truth. (Woolf, p.153). Since the early drafting of the novel, Woolf also intended Septimus to work as a double of her protagonist, to contrast her thoughts and, in the end, to suffer the fate she had initially chosen for her: Mrs Dalloway was originally to kill herself, or perhaps merely to die at the end of the party(Intro to Modern Library edition of Mrs Dalloway). Clarissa and Septimus may be seen as opposite personalities at the beginning (one belonging to the upper classes, the other to the reduced number of men who returned from the war); however, they share several characteristics, among them are their longing for the past, their desire to communicate with others and, most important, the way they perceive death. Even though they never interact directly, the saneness and instability that characterizes

them will merge as the day goes by and stay connected thanks to numerous devices conceived by the author. The first mechanism that links Clarissa and Septimus is the narrative method used by Woolf. It consists of continuous shifts from an omniscient narrator, which accompanies the characters in their journey through London, to the minds of the characters; shifts that take the reader from actual time to mind time (Woolf, p.13). Woolf referred to this discovery as beautiful caves behind my characters that would end up connecting and coming to daylight at the present moment (Dick, 53). This fragmented structure allows us to know the characters from two different perspectives and witness the effect that the external world has on their thoughts. The opening phrase of the novel, told by an external narrator, gives us enough information about the main character and her social rank. The shift of focus happens on the following lines; we become acquainted with Clarissas memories and impressions as she walks the streets of London. The most significant features of Clarissas personality are her necessity to remain attached to life (therefore to enjoy it) and her growing fear of death. This features become more obvious during the course of the day: she had a sudden spasm, as if, while she mused, the icy claws had had the chance to fix in her (40). We are also introduced to Septimus by an external narrator who, after narrating Clarissas moment at the flower shop, describes the back-firing of a car and the reactions of the pedestrians who have heard it, among them Septimus and Clarissa. This is the first of several events that will connect Clarissa and Septimuss lives. The narrator begins by giving a physical description of the
2

character; he tells us that Septimus is in his thirties, has a pale face, a beak-nosed (this is a physical characteristic that he shares with Clarissa) and hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too (15). After this brief description, the focus changes again and takes us inside Septimuss mind, who believes himself to be responsible for the traffic caused by the car. The appearance of a sky-writer over Buckingham Palace, whose confusing message puzzles the people from the streets, becomes the second connecting event between Clarissa and Septimus. The plane is noticed by Septimus and his wife as it flies over Regents Park. Look, look, Septimus! she cried. For Dr. Holmes had told her to make her husband take an interest in things outside himself (23). After overflying Regents Park, the plane heads to Greenwhich and then to Ludgate Circus. Clarissa arrives home when the plane is apparently overflying Buckingham Palace and Green Park, which are near her route home (Dick, 53). The reactions of both characters contrast significantly between each other. Clarissa shows a momentary curiosity for the object that has drawn everyones attention, What are they looking at said Clarissa to the maid who opened her door (31), but Septimus interprets the planes writing as an image of beauty and believes that someone is trying to communicate with him through codes. At this point of the narration, it is impossible to deny that Septimus has been deeply affected by his experiences during the war (he suffers from shell shock) and that he has a severe mental illness that will keep worsening, just like Clarissas fear of death. He believes that his voice, in certain atmospheric

conditions (24), can bring trees into life; he finds harmony in the chaotic noises of the streets and sees them as the birth of a new religion (24); his friend Evans, killed during the war, appears to him behind trees; the birds of the park sing him messages in Greek. The inclusion of Greek language was not made arbitrarily. After her first suicide attempt in 1904, Woolf imagined that birds sang to her in Greek (Woolf, p. 90); years later, while she was already working in Mrs Dalloway, she began translating the Greek tragedy Agamenon. These happenings reveal us two important facts about Septimus: first, that Woolf used many of her personal experiences (especially regarding her mental breakdowns and suicide attempts) to construct this character; second, that Septimus shares many resemblances with the Greek tragic hero. On the other hand, he stands for the misunderstood prophet, just like Cassandra in Aeschyluss tragedy, someone who perceives life in different terms but is unable to communicate it to the external world. Septimus was a visionary man before the war; he was a poet who failed at accomplishing his artistic aims; these particular features link him with the figure of the romantic artist. Finally, Septimus can also be interpreted as a personification of the chaos and hopelessness that surrounded Europe after the First World War, characteristics that reminds us of other modernist works, like T.S Eliots The Waste Land. Besides turning to classic literature, Woolf also uses sixteenth century literature in order to strengthen her own ideas. Shakespeare is a recurrent figure throughout the novel, specially a fragment of his play Cymbeline: Fear no more the heat o the sun / Nor the furious winters rages. When Clarissa heads to the flower shop at the beginning of the novel, she reads these lines in a book displayed in a shop

window. A few pages later, after finding out that Lady Burton did not invite her to lunch, she repeats the same lines as a way of consoling herself. Septimus remembers Shakespeares fragment moments before he kills himself : Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more (153). These few lines belong to a funeral hymn and contain a double meaning: they can be interpreted as a statement about the certainty and devastation of death, but also as an encouraging reflection about the freedom that death brings in opposition to the limitations of life. Despite its difference in meanings, both arguments are constantly analysed inside the minds of Septimus and Clarissa. Septimuss suicide becomes another important connector between these two characters; it possesses a great amount of symbolism that will be contrasted with the final scenes of the novel. Before engaging in this act, Septimus experiences a brief moment of lucidity and happiness in the company of Rezia, his wife. For a moment, we believe that Septimus has healed and chosen life over death, but this belief quickly dissapears when Dr. Holmes arrives. Unlike Clarissa, who has an indirect encounter with death (the new of Septimuss suicide) but then keeps on living, Septimus experiences life for a brief moment in order to achieve death. His decision is seen by the external world as an act of cowardice, The coward! cried Dr. Holmes (164), but the reader, who has been in contact with Septimuss thoughts, knows that he is left with no other choice; he chooses death in order to preserve something that he values even more than life itself: his own soul: Holmes would get him There remained only the window It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezias He did not want to die (163-164). Woolf transforms an act of

cowardice into a heroic act, an act of insubordination towards the cruelty of authorities (Woolfs own and bitter experience with doctors is also portrayed in this scene). There could not be a greater contrast with Septimuss suicide than the party that Clarissa throws at the end of the novel, which has been interpreted by many as a metaphor of life. Even though, the celebration is briefly overshadowed with the news of Septimuss death, communicated by Sir William Bradshaw. This is the most significant connector of the entire story; it is the moment in which the main character becomes aware of the existence of her double and the similarities that she shares with him: Somehow it was her disaster her disgrace (203). The true purpose of Septimuss suicide is also revealed in this passage: it makes Clarissa reflect about her own life and saves her from following the same path, the one Woolf had intended for her at the beginning. Contrary to what we might expect from a woman of her position, she admires the poets decision because it allowed him to preserve his soul and integrity, something that had been wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved (202). She finally understands that death is an act of communication and that one must learn to live with its constant threat: There was an embrace in death (202). Septimus becomes, in a way, a sort of scapegoat. He dies so Clarissa and the rest of the characters can value life: She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away while they went on livi ng (204). The second epiphany (known by Woolf as moment of being) happens when Clarissa looks through her window and sees an old woman in the house across the way.

Windows possess a significant symbolic charge in this novel: at the beginning of the narration, Clarissa remembers her days of youth; she recalls how she burst open the French windows and plunge into Burton feeling that something awful was about to happen (3); this bad omen is confirmed years later with the suicide of Septimus, who dies by throwing himself of a window. The image of this old lady represents many things for Clarissa Dalloway: her own future and the solitude implied by it, but also peace. It is thanks to this encounter that Mrs Dalloway will finally be able to come in terms with death. After this, she becomes the embodiment of life, something that is perceived by Peter Walsh at the end of the novel: What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? What is this that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was (213) Mrs Dalloway proves that the line between contrary concepts, such as sanity and insanity or life and death, is thinner than what we might expect. They coexist in the novel through the actions of Septimus and Clarissa, as well as in the life of Woolf herself.

Bibliography: -Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. London: Penguin Classics, 2000. -Literary realism in Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and The Waves. Dick, Susan. Roe, Sue, and Sellers, Susan, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. -The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 5 vols, ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Penguin Books, 19791985