Essay | Books

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: insanity, women’s rights and war’s ravages

Image: Getty Images/ iStock

Image: Getty Images/ iStock  

The novel is a powerful critique of post-WWI London, of society’s adherence to a flawed patriarchy and the medical community’s bumbling approach to mental health

Madame Bovary chose arsenic to end her life. Anna Karenina flung herself under a train. Jane Eyre got her happy ending by becoming Mrs. Rochester. And Mrs. Dalloway? She returned to her party.

Virginia Woolf’s middle-class protagonist — who joined her famous predecessors in 1925 to carry the title of a literary classic on her rather ordinary shoulders — drew courage from the death of Septimus Warren Smith, a WWI veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. The 51-year-old Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway neither knew the man, nor pitied him. But when she learned of his death, “She felt somehow very like him — the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.”

A day in June

In Woolf’s hands, as the mundanity of Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts parallels Septimus Smith’s madness, they are transformed into something rich and strange. Set in London, Mrs. Dalloway takes place on a single day, a Wednesday in mid-June. As Clarissa plans for her husband’s important party — the prime minister is expected to attend it — Big Ben chimes in the background, keeping track of the hours that pass by. The novel opens five years after the end of World War I, with Clarissa deciding that she would buy the flowers for her party herself. Meanwhile Septimus, who has been an emotional wasteland ever since the death of his commanding officer Evans, is steadily descending into the abyss, convinced that the sparrows are singing to him in Greek, “from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death.”

Through the minutiae of the characters’ thoughts, or stream of consciousness, the novel explores themes of insanity, the loss of identity to marriage, the aftermath of war, women’s rights or the lack of them, and the passing of youth, love and life. It is a powerful critique of post-WWI London, of society’s adherence to a flawed patriarchy and the medical community’s bumbling approach to mental health. And yet, unlike Bloomsday, when the whole of Dublin descends on the streets to celebrate Leopold Bloom’s perambulations through the city on June 16 in James Joyce’s Ulysses, there had been no official Dalloway Day, until recently. The British Library and the Royal Society of Literature are celebrating Dalloway Day on June 19 this year, but these are stray commemorations mostly limited within academic circles.

Woolf, who was working on a draft of Mrs. Dalloway at the time of Ulysses’ release, had dismissed Joyce’s novel as “brackish” and “pretentious” in her diaries. And yet she emulated its structure in Mrs. Dalloway. If Leopold Bloom epitomises male swagger, then Clarissa Dalloway is his genteel upper-middle-class antithesis.

Woolf introduces Clarissa in her maiden novel, Voyage Out (1915), where she and her husband travel to a fictional colony in South America at the height of British imperialism. Ten years later, with the British Empire scarred by one world war and staring at another, Clarissa’s inner thoughts are laid bare as she and Septimus propel the novel towards an uncertain future.

When I first read Mrs. Dalloway at the age of 17, I recoiled from Clarissa, a woman who felt the weight of her years, “shrivelled, aged, breastless”. After the horror of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and the dystopian nightmare of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the disjointed ramblings of a middle-aged wife seemed inane. It was only years later, when I returned to the novel, that I discovered the quiet horror and anger that drove Woolf as she bristled against a society which kept women underfoot. Her characters do not rage loudly against the dying of the sun. Their sound and fury are all the more sharp and desperate because they are muted.

Walking alone

In a diary entry, Woolf stated her ambition for Mrs. Dalloway: “I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work at its most intense...” She drew from her own experience with depression to breathe life into Septimus’ battle with shell shock, and the ineffectual treatment of ‘rest cure’ prescribed by doctors at the time. Developed by neurologist Silas Mitchell, rest cure involved the isolation of a patient — usually women and war veterans — for six to eight weeks from friends and family, mandatory bed rest with no intellectual stimulation, and force-feeding.

In the novel, one doctor refuses to acknowledge Septimus’ problems, and another prescribes the dreaded rest cure, which he rebels against. Woolf, who suffered “mental breakdowns” and periods of manic depression, hated the treatment. Before Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse on March 28, 1941— 16 years after Mrs. Dalloway was published — she consented to talk to her doctor on condition that she would not be made to endure a rest cure. Was she thinking of Septimus and Clarissa when she made that lonely walk to the river?

The cracks in society that Mrs. Dalloway exposed a little less than a 100 years ago have been carried forward into the 21st century. It’s all the more reason to acknowledge Dalloway Day, and the existence of Clarissa in our psyche.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 11:50:17 AM |

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