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Courtney Greenberg

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Modern thoughts on 20th century literature written by women: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Modern thoughts on 20th century literature written by women: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This is the seventh post of a series about books written by women to give me an excuse to read more female authors. Spoilers ahead!

This stream of consciousness narrative flows effortlessly from the first page to the last, telling the story of Mrs. Dalloway and everyone who touches her life—from strangers on the street to her maid to her daughter’s tutor to a former suitor to a suicidal war veteran. The novel, although rather short, is packed with lyrical descriptions of London in the 1920s and the inner thoughts of each of the characters.

The sentences were paragraphs long, and it took me a while to adjust to the excessive semi-colons, but once I got used to Woolf’s style (this was the first book I’ve read by her), I found a certain rhythm within the words and structure. The points of view shift in a cinematic way, giving the narrator (and reader) a feeling of omniscience. Woolf uses Mrs. Dalloway as her anchor, returning to her frequently as the leading lady plans a party for that evening. The book takes place in London over the course of the day, but through memories and day dreams, the stories of each character are told from varying perspectives.

No country for old women

It is clear through Mrs. Dalloway’s struggles that there seems to be no place for older women in society, unless they are planning a party or working as an old maid. As her own daughter is nearly grown up, Clarissa Dalloway contemplates her adolescence spent in Bourton, her experience with close friend Sally Seton (whose kiss she cannot forget), and how her relationship with Peter Walsh disintegrated when she refused to marry him. With an expected visit from Peter before the party, she is brought back to her past and feelings of not having done enough with her life—while also commending herself for her ability to throw a good soiree. She oscillates between believing that being a good hostess is enough and dismissing herself as “just a wife” and mother.

She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway, not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.
— Mrs. Dalloway

She is offended that her husband was invited to lunch with Lady Bruton, while she was not. And even though it turns out to be an innocent meeting to write a letter to The Times for one of Lady Bruton’s causes, Clarissa laments the fact that her husband was asked to go. She is aware that women are not considered as the head of the family and are left to take on roles that are less crucial to society. Clarissa is doomed to being the wife of a politician, but also struggles to completely discard her position because she knows it is one of privilege.

Misguided mental health

Throughout the book, the story of Septimus Warren Smith is told in parts: how he was a solid worker, how he ended up fighting in the war, how his friend and officer Evans died in the war, how he married a young Italian woman (instead of the woman he loved), how he descended into depression and later, ended up killing himself, rather than be taken away by doctors to a house in the country where he would rest. The notion that nothing was wrong with Septimus is reinforced by Dr. Holmes, who continuously calls Septimus’s state of depression a “funk.” Outwardly, Septimus seems able and healthy, but he speaks to himself and has night terrors as well as waking dreams where he sees Evans. He also has rambling thoughts and believes he is connected to trees and that they must not be cut down. When he visits the park with his wife, Rezia, he cannot shake away his dream-like state.

Rezia’s blind trust in Dr. Holmes, who Septimus hates, is frightening because she believes in a figure who is supposed to be an authority on the subject—but instead, it is clear he is unable to understand or help him. (This reminds me of Lemony Snicket’s Mr. Poe, who is trusted to take care of three orphans, but instead, continuously puts them in harm’s way because of his willful ignorance). Despite the doctor’s advice that everything is fine, Rezia seeks another opinion as Septimus seems to get worse and is less attached to reality.

Neither Rezia nor Dr. Holmes draw a connection between Septimus serving in the war and his current condition, which today, would seem obvious. Conversely, when Septimus is taken to the more “reputable” and well-known doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, he is told the situation is much worse than it appeared. Bradshaw recommends that Septimus stay away from his young wife so he can rest and learn “proportion”—a reoccurring theme for Bradshaw, who believes that all Septimus has to do is gain a sense of proportion. He never calls Septimus “mad” but treats him as though he is. Rezia does not like this approach at all but agrees to it.

It was a case of extreme gravity. It was a case of complete breakdown – complete physical and nervous breakdown, with every symptom in an advanced stage, he ascertained in two or three minutes...
— Sir William Bradshaw, Mrs. Dalloway

Bradshaw doesn’t spend much time with Septimus before deciding what he needs—essentially the same remedy for all of his patients, which is to be kept away from loved ones, who, according to him, do more damage than good for those who “lack proportion.” The idea that people suffering from depression should be removed completely from society is alarming and antiquated. Clarissa often isolates herself, too, and retires to the attic, completely withdrawn from the outside world. Despite her ability to charm people and know them intimately, she, too, is depressed because of her life choices (which were not entirely her own choices, but rather the forced decisions of position as a woman society.) In the end, Clarissa relates to Septimus, and is content for him, having chosen to end his life, unlike the Dr. Holmes, who believes the suicide is a cowardly move.

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. But she must go back.
— Mrs. Dalloway

Rather than allow Rezia to deal with the death of her husband, the doctor gives her a sedative and she goes to sleep. As the ambulance carrying the dead body roars through London, Rezia is numbed and not allowed to properly mourn or feel. Thus is the way suicide is dealt with and how depression is contained. Mrs. Dalloway, however, sees his suicide as an escape, and, at the very least, an actual choice.

Want more modern thoughts on literature written by women? Check out my posts on Wuthering HeightsHouse of Ulloa, And Then There Were None, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Persuasion, Circe and My Cousin Rachel.

A love/hate relationship with I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

A love/hate relationship with I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Modern thoughts on literature written by women: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier & Circe by Madeline Miller

Modern thoughts on literature written by women: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier & Circe by Madeline Miller