I think Woolf has an ability to extract the core of what it means to be depressed, melancholic, disturbed or whatever we want to call it. She also lays out the choices clearly: you can either have the tragic truths of existence be revealed to you and kill yourself (because who can bear the pain, really?), or be ignorantly sheltered in social structures in which you have to make yourself believe that they matter (they don’t). The tension of this choice, in which there are no true or right answers, is ingrained deeply in all of us I think, whether we notice it or not. I think this is why we wholeheartedly agreed when one of our friends said that she read the book with tears in her eyes and added, “but aren’t we all Septimus?”
The terms “happy” and “unhappy” cover such a large spectrum of human emotions and are so inherently undefinable that to say any person, fictional or not, is any one of these things would be an understatement. That being said, however, Mrs. Clarrissa Dalloway cannot be construed as a “happy” woman in the broadest sense of the word. What is more poignant and interesting, still, are the reasons she feels the way she does. Throughout the book, the themes that occupy Clarissa are that of identity and the passing of time. She constantly questions who she is outside the implications of being one “Mrs. Dalloway,” while also trying to reconcile the concrete and irrevocable passing of time presented by the way Big Ben strikes the hour (leaving leaden circles in its wake), showing us that the philosophical or existential questioning of each character cannot help but be bound by the arbitrary demarcations we call “hours.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that the first passage which assumes Clarissa as the center of consciousness is constructed in a way that portrays the implications of being a fifty two year old, upper class woman. One gets the sense that Clarissa, more than ever, is feeling that she might not have that much time left on this earth, and begins questioning the value of the decisions she had made. “There would have been no more having children,” she asserts at one point, almost as if she is wondering “is this all there is?” right after which she claims “… this being Mrs. Dalloway, not even Clarissa anymore, this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.”
Though it may seem insignificant at first glance, this is the question that helps us create a lens for the rest of the novel. As we learn, Clarissa, before she became Mrs. Dalloway had a passion about life, to the point of restlessness. She enjoyed being taken away on the “adventures” of Sally Seton, enjoyed reading socialist writings (as opposed to the ones she reads now), and although she was always decorous and proper, we sense a spirit in Clarissa that wanted to be light, free and appreciative of the world that surrounds her. This, of course, is strengthened by the relationship that unfolds between Sally and her.
It is not only her physical youth that has deserted her in the eve of her party; it is more as if the restlessness that occupied her younger years has turned sour and became a nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach which compels her to question the true nature of things and extract a certain meaning, and therefore solace, from them. This is really what is being questioned here; and Woolf offers two possible resolutions (for lack of a better word), by creating a character that is the parallel to Clarissa; Septimus Warren Smith.
They are presented as doubles from the beginning of the book; first with their physical appearances (their beak-like noses), then with their experiences (witnessing the death of a loved one), then with the way they use language to describe the world and finally with Septimus’ final act of suicide which resonates with Clarissa beyond reason and “normal” human comprehension. Which brings us to another topic that is prominent in the book, proportion in the face of conversion. Septimus’ vision of humanity is thwarted after he comes back from the war; neither the Sonnets of Shakespeare nor the wind bowing in the leaves can remain the same anymore. “He is having an issue of proportion,” claims Dr Bradshaw, it is this asymmetry, this chaos, this unimaginable reconstruction of the world that is making Sepimus sick, according to him.
Woolf does not even hesitate for a second to remind us, that proportion has a sister: conversion, which distorts the world and “feasts on the wills of the weakly.” This is also Clarissa’s infliction; stuck between proportion and conversion, real time and imagined time, her purest self and “Mrs. Dalloway.” In the end, Septimus will choose to end this terrible state of incapacitation and crisis by simply ending his life. This is the first “resolution” to the previously discussed problem.
It is important to note that, though he is portrayed as the most unstable character of the book, Septimus points out or brings out an existential nihilism that is persistent both in the other characters of the book (though it is buried deep, deep down of course), and to a certain extent, in us, the readers as well. He claims to have understood the true nature of humanity and although he cannot see anything but a vicious monster, there are moments in which he is so deeply appreciative of the smallest things (a child running, the sun beaming…) that the clarity he reaches is redeemed and cannot be seen as “pure madness.”
Unlike Septimus, Clarissa is protected by some of the structures that surround her, the house, her husband, daughter, the party, the Prime minister and so on. In a way, her status and the fact that she has always been fond of such socializations, helps prevent her from descending into the total darkness Septimus is in. These structures, however, also ironically suffocate her, because (as she is one with Septimus by her most inner nature) she knows, deep in her heart that all this is insignificant and so is he, and so are the trees which she feels a part of.
In the end, “unhappy” does not cover the full extent of Clarissa’s experiences and emotions. To me, she is detached. Not as much as Septimus, of course, because she can still feel emotions. Both her body and her mind react to the death of Septimus; after which she accuses the Bradshaws for “bringing death to her party.” This is a great passage that exemplifies the empathy, helplessness and a desire for control which all exist in one Mrs. Dalloway. “[There is] a freedom,” Septimus claims at one point, “which the attached can never know.” Though there may be many interpretations of this assertion, to me, it epitomizes the existential struggle that resides within Clarissa, and by extension, in everyone else. Both Clarissa and Septimus, as we all are, are stuck between the possibly happy (yet somewhat ignorant) future and the clear but cruel present. Septimus chooses to take himself out of this entrapment. What Clarissa does, we cannot know; as she is standing between “is” and “was” in the final pages of the book.
Written for my “Typologies of the Novel II: 20th Century” class in 28.03.2017.
Image: Self-Portrait by Rupert Shrive