Reading Virginia Woolf's novel

 
 

 
 

A Sense of Comedy in Mrs Dalloway                                      

     

 

             “Comedy was never one of the most honoured Muses.” 

                                                                            George  Meredith

 

 

 

According to Sigmund Freud, comedy opens a window to the subconscious. Others have suggested that the ludicrous resides next door to the serious and “furnishes protective coloring for themes that cannot be introduced without it” (Roger Shattuck 76). Laughter offers a means of establishing contact with the reader since Horace, in Ars Poetica, requires that art should amuse as well as instruct (Christensen 151,154). Hence, there may be some justification for noting precedents explicating those several passages in Mrs Dalloway which display a sense of comedy; some even cry out for notice with such dexterity that they, paradoxically, exploit “elegance of tone with triviality of content” (Ames 368).  A study of the comedy of Modernism, its interest in style over substance or its interest in technique above topic (according to Maurice Beebe), is not completely counterintuitive. In issues like war and madness, however, “play is the barrier that separates art from savagery” (Frye 46). Yet war and madness have always trumped ironic comedy as subjects for commentary about this novel.  Yet, approaching Mrs Dalloway through its satiric potential supplies a wealth of material to tease even the modest sense of humor. Judy Little treats the subject at length and has included Virginia Woolf among those who make good use of comedy by techniques of saying “many dangerous things obliquely” (Little 21).

Other critics are rather stingy with their references to comedy and none are very specific. Kenneth Ames is surprised by obtrusive devices such as the conventional “mock-heroic” (Ames 365). “The mode of light comedy,” admits Moody who finds the novel “deeply flawed” exhibits ”very considerable comedy”; such comedy which is found in this “imperfect novel” contradicts Rosenberg who instead finds Mrs Dalloway “humorless despite its flashes of wit and humor” (Moody 72; Rosenberg 212). Rachman feels that the British class system is being described “in a comic vein,” making fun of hypocrisy in a parody of the Prime Minister, and taking notice of “the artificial life of society people” (Rachman 8; Little 48). Richards also refers to occasional parody with few specific observations. Others have deplored the “horseplay,” even as “the horses paw the ground” (MD 66; Brower 135). These comments seem to have silenced any further examination of the lighthearted satire in Mrs Dalloway even though it must be admitted that there can be much “gravitas” in humor, requiring as close a reading as in any other scholarly approach to its broad range of stylistics.

The great quantities of humor which may require a thoughtfully receptive reader have otherwise gone unremarked, however. There are various methods of achieving risibility include the discrepancy existing between subject and referent as well as the subtlety of the occasional double entendre. Thus the entertaining and educational subtlety of comedy in Mrs Dalloway constitutes a problem due, as Woolf suggests, to not knowing  “where precisely we ought to laugh”, or even if we ought to laugh at all (Woolf CR 23; MD 230). Virginia Woolf treats the problems of subtlety in comedy in Greek literature since “humour is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue” (Woolf CR 36). Subtlety in Mrs Dalloway is, as Dryden has famously said, executed with “the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place” (Discourse Concerning Satire). Peter Walsh, something of a malcontent, has reported that Clarissa Dalloway herself has “an exquisite sense of comedy but needed people, always people to bring it out” (MD 118). Therefore, it may be, rather, that the subtle ironic twist requires a recognition of what is incongruous, when characterization is often fused with a pastiche of preformed language derived from literary allusions. Thus, comedy is derived from incongruity which is frequently the hidden basis for humor in Mrs Dalloway. This technique of creating humor, “apparently fortuitous groupings of incongruous things,” is often just as interesting as its result (CR 237). This essay will explore a few instances of incongruity in Mrs Dalloway including its familiar Modernist  features.

Incongruity is a fundamental characteristic of comic utterance when juxtaposition yields paradoxical associations and unexpected insights. It is present when logic and familiarity are replaced by suggestions between things not normally associated with one another, when one thing is anticipated and another results, or when what is anticipated or expected is not forthcoming. The clever contradiction of logic in the incongruous is amusing. For example, study the prominent incongruity in a local business establishment named the Baruch Spinoza Car Wash. Such playfulness is amusing when there is occasional incongruity between alternative definitions of words. “As a rule the novelist uses words as a means to an end” (Rosenberg 219).

For example. Rezia Warren Smith, discussing women’s fashion, appreciates a shop-girl who has turned her “little bit of stuff” gallantly; she incongruously refers to fabric without knowing, as the reader knows, that “bit of stuff” is Cockney slang for a “girl friend” (MD 132). Similarly, Peter Walsh is amazed that a man is writing about the questionable topic of “water closets” when the presumable subject is the “loo” as in Joyce’s Ulysses; readers may associate this with the false etymology, “Waterloo,” which is a perfectly acceptable word in any context (MD 108). Ralph Lyon as “liar”, a role among the petty liars discussed below, belongs in the group of false etymologies. See also “cherry pie” at Mulberry’s florist, Cockney rhyming slang for “lie”, derived from “telling a cherry” (MD 18).  Much of the satire in Mrs Dalloway depends upon incongruities which appear with studied frequency, the subject of this study. But, as Voltaire has cautioned us, if you have to explain a joke it isn’t funny anymore. E. B. White also warns that humor is like a frog that dies when dissected because the paradox within the anecdote cannot be separated from its verbal texture. May this explication of Virginia Woolf’s creature retain its comedy in laughter.

Incongruity in ordinary street scenes may serve both comic as well as serious purposes. Among these street scenes are the statuary typical of Whitehall as well as several breeds of dogs in Bond Street and elsewhere. The illustrative dogs suggest the concept of “the signifying dog,” a useful device in various situations appearing in Mrs Dalloway (as conceived by Jane Goldman), engaging in doggie business, “busy with the railings [urinating], busy with each other … as they received life [i. e. sex]” (MD 39). Peter Walsh notes among the statuary an apparently “canine” General Gordon ambiguously “standing lonely with one leg raised.” This is rather a come-down for the hero of the Sudan (MD 77; Strachey 233-338). Substitution of the signifying dog for the human creates a very subtle “sight gag”. Henri Bergson’s famous work with helpful theories on literary humor, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, furnishes manifold explanations for the perplexed. “A comic effect is obtained whenever we pretend to take literally an expression which was used figuratively” (or for that matter when the figurative is taken literally) or when “one’s own attention is fixed on the material aspect of a metaphor [and] the idea becomes comic”; or, when “two different sets of ideas are expressed and we are confronted with only one series of words” as in this case (Bergson 115). That is, great literature may thrive on ambiguity, but humor absolutely depends on it when the language applies to more than one reading.

In Clarissa’s jaunt through the Park, she encounters an old friend, Hugh Whitbread, who flatters her “that she might be a girl of eighteen” and Clarissa comments on her preference for walking in the city by way of an imitation of the opening scenario of Plato’s Phaedrus 200 (MD 8). Socrates prefers walking in the city like Clarissa; for her, walking in urban London is “better than walking in the country” (MD 7). Surely Clarissa would be the last person to be deliberately quoting Plato by way of a straightforward philosophical allusion. Amusement for the reader depends on recognizing the incongruity, when mutually incompatible matters – Clarissa and Plato, ancient and modern – are linked. According to Henri Bergson, “The transposition from the ancient to the modern, draw[ing] its inspiration from one series of events belonging to the past and another belonging to the present” is always comic (Bergson 99-100). Many such examples of preformed language derived from ancient literature supply a humorous context.

Satiric ridicule is an organizing principle of the Dalloway-esque form of characterization. Often it is Horatian (gentle); sometimes it is Juvenalian (harsh). The hot-water bottle, a “sight gag,” is just such a Horatian stand-by. In the right place, the mere mention of a hot-water bottle will provoke a laugh. This contrived and often-used stage prank is familiar in Music Hall comedy. It has been said that the English have hot-water bottles; their Continental neighbors have instead a sex life. Such an association is comic because it reveals, by incongruity, the humble human being beneath the mask of a prominent personage.

In Mrs Dalloway, Richard Dalloway, “slipping upstairs in his socks,” drops his hot-water bottle (MD 47). How human that a Member of Parliament requires such a humble article of comfort, such a cozy bedmate, particularly since he sleeps apart from his wife. Having removed his shoes and “slipping” upstairs in his socks, Clarissa calls attention to his footwear which in antiquity was the professional slipper worn by comedians, the soccus, As in the comedy of manners, the hot-water bottle mocks the underlying human comedy of the rich and leisured class. Clarissa, too, thinks it’s funny. “How she laughed!”

Miss Kilman fits the old-maid stereotype with her own hot-water bottle joins Richard Dalloway’s comic shtick (MD 195). Comedy results when “anything stereotyped” or ready-made is part of a scenario such as Richard’s uxoriousness, which is itself one of the numbers of comic conventions. Miss Kilman’s hot-water bottle merely underscores her spinsterhood which is a comic convention as well. As Elizabeth Dalloway’s tutor, the agelastic Miss Kilman has become a malign influence for this young woman. Clarissa comments that, as a child Elizabeth had “a perfect sense of humor” like herself but she had become more serious apparently under Kilman’s tutelage (MD 186). Miss Kilman counsels her, “She must not let parties absorb her,” adding sanctimoniously, “I never go to parties … . People don’t ask me to parties” (MD 199-200). One can easily see how her serious posture is undercut by the introduction of the comic hot-water bottle.

Elizabeth herself illustrates the naive adolescent as she considers entering a profession as a farmer, or a doctor, or going to Parliament; witness her youthfully “firm determination” to be either a farmer or a doctor, incongruous ambitions which are neither firm nor determined (MD 207). The ingénue offers a sympathetic interlude for matters concerning Miss Kilman which are much more significant and relate later to the apparently unimportant occasion of the skywriting aeroplane.

The aeroplane supplies an irreverent aspect of the incongruity in hidden meanings such as that which incorporates the violation of taboos, ridiculing matters repressed or prohibited by social orthodoxy. An issue such as Joycean “water-closet humor” initiated by Peter Walsh is further developed by the skywriting aeroplane. “When something is ridiculed, its authority is undermined [and] an alternate aberrant version is being tacitly insinuated” (Fishburn 10). This instrument of writing, the aeroplane which emits white smoke from behind, may recall the occasion of Bloom in his watercloset (MD 29, emphasis added). The subtle irreverence with which the smoke specifically issues “from behind” with sound effects comparable to those in Joyce’s Ulysses (“a horn sounded” –MD 33) suggests crepitation, a violation of propriety if not the taboo against such literary indiscretions. A less subtle or less diplomatic description of this phenomenon might have resulted in the banning of the book. This scatological trope for an indecent text concludes with an emphatic reminder of farting, again, with the white smoke which “poured out from behind” and is given its anatomical specificity (MD 29, 42). “Humor often allows for the presentation of an unpalatable truth” (Fishburn 23). The target is a “text” which is essentially meaningless.

Incongruity exists between the comments of Mrs. Coates, Mrs. Bletchley, and Mr. Bowley on the unreadable text which employs unmentionable imagery and the assortment of observers who claim a spiritual association like the over-reading made by Mr. Bentley who perceives in the Immelman-like maneuvers of the aeroplane “a symbol … of man’s soul,” and the mad perceptions made by Septimus Smith concerning some unnamed beings “signaling their intention to provide him … with beauty” (MD 41, 31). Associated with the writer on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, it is conspicuous as “the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together” (MD 42). Primarily, it suggests a satirical comment on pretentious contemporary literary criticism of an unreadable text which is “mounting in ecstasy” for some and imaging a disreputably suggestive commentary for others when the text is merely blowing smoke (MD 42).

Similarly, in the same context, there is Miss Kilman and her “powerful smell about which the novel remains coy”; the evil-smelling Miss Kilman, according to the perceptions of  Minow-Pinkney,  with her flatulence, is beyond breaking wind (”she was about to split asunder”). “At tea, Elizabeth reflects that ‘it was rather stuffy in here’” (Minow-Pinkney 74); by comparison the fresh air out of doors is said to be “delicious.” “The satire of such a figure [as Miss Kilman] is traditionally overdrawn and harsh” (Little 56). Word-play anticipates the situation repeatedly: Elizabeth’s comments alternate with Kilman’s in such ambiguous statements as “She must not go,”  “She would like to go,” “Her mother wanted her to go” which repeat with obvious emphasis until the verbal sequence of “to go” concludes with a different connotation. “A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time” (Bergson 96). In Elizabeth’s absence  Kilman is “stricken once, twice, thrice by shocks of suffering. She had gone” (MD 200-201, emphasis added). This comment is summarized emphatically later, “she had gone.” It appears as a lowly matter chronically endured, the incongruity evoked by words with more than one meaning in language familiar to any child who has to “go”.

The scatological defamiliarization is rendered coyly in elevated language. Kilman’s religious preoccupations are further satirized by her privileged use of Mr. Whittaker’s “private house,” and solaced when she seeks sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, incongruously, as a “comfort station,” among tourists who are there to see the wax works, not to worship (MD 188, 202). Kilman, as a “blocking character”, is a vivid target of Juvenalian ridicule providing readers the amused satisfaction of seeing an unpleasant character come to grief. In its company as current literature this dangerously “mocks norms which have been considered values for millennia” (Little 2).

Another device, here designated as The Tremendous Trifle, is an aspect of incongruity expressed in its very name – a small matter given an inappropriately large dimension. Thus, the consumption of food in the context of festival makes its contribution to the discourse of comedy. According to John Wilkins “Comedy was the standard bearer of food texts,” an observation summarized by Gregory Dobrov: “Where there is comedy, there is food” (Wilkins 256; MD xvii). Clarissa, offended at having found that her husband has been invited to Lady Bruton’s luncheon without her, responds, next, by dignifying her chagrin with exaggerations and repeated references as a running gag, the reference used repeatedly. “Repetition … is a favorite device of comedy” (Bergson 33). Clarissa’s annoyance returns at intervals, out of context, the unpleasant thought surfacing as she gradually comprehends the fact that her husband is to be dining with another woman. Only later do we learn that Hugh Whitbread is the chaperone for the elderly friends.

Phraseology repeats (”whose lunch parties were said to be extraordinarily amusing had not asked her”) giving a complete summary of the situation (MD 44, 45). Preparing to mend her dress, Clarissa again indulges in the recollection of the luncheon to which she has not been invited (MD 55). At the conclusion of Peter Walsh’s visit, the thought of Richard lunching with Lady Bruton again returns (MD 70). Once again at some distance the matter returns, just as Richard’s later visit opens whose presence reminds Clarissa of Lady Bruton’s lunch parties which “were said to be extraordinarily amusing” (MD 178); and she soon asks him if the occasion has been “amusing” and “Had Lady Bruton asked after her?” It is, rather, the mocking repetitions that are amusing (MD 179). Much later, at Clarissa’s party, Peter informs us that Lady Bruton’s luncheons are rewards for her “toadies” in return for minor services such as writing letters for her. Clarissa’s final recognition of the luncheon (“Richard so much enjoyed his lunch party”) serves notice of her silent acknowledgment of the social affront continuing throughout the day (MD 272-273). Finally, Lady Bruton credits Richard with helping her to write a letter although it is Hugh Whitbread’s work for the most part, since she feels that “the difference between one man and another does not amount to much” (MD 157).

A mere luncheon invitation rudely withheld is a trifle which is antithetical to the great evening party before her and seems incongruous but for nomenclature, since Clarissa’s husband whose misnomer, “Wickham”, marks him as the womanizing cad from Pride and Prejudice; he is dining with another woman and without her, “feeling herself suddenly shriveled, aged, breastless” (MD 45). Peter Walsh meanwhile spices his visit by introducing an equally disturbing source for her anguish, telling Clarissa frankly, “I am in love” which he repeats, “In love” (MD 66). Clarissa, again, prone to succumb to repetitions regarding matters which disquiet her, echoes his words in various ways, “In love,” and she reacts with contempt when Peter Walsh, “at his age,” claims to be in love, “Not with her. With some younger woman, of course” (MD 67).

Clarissa’s feeling of inadequacy coupled with Richard’s luncheon engagement (“It was all over for her … I am alone forever”) continues in the form of another running gag, as she gradually digests this bit of news. “He is in love. He has that she felt; he is in love.” (“All the same, he is in love, thought Clarissa” - MD 67). And as she deplores the woman involved, she remembers having refused to marry him. “Still, he was in love; her old friend, her dear Peter, he was in love” (MD 68). “The periodical repetition of a word or scene … must derive its comic force from … an obvious human clockwork arrangement of human events”; it is displayed in the gradual surfacing of a repressed feeling which is finally rendered apparent as a Tremendous Trifle according to Bergson on literary humor (Bergson 73, 36). The repetitions of the news that Peter is in love but not with her compare well with the similarly disturbing fact that Richard is dining with Lady Bruton.

Hugh Whitbread provides an amusing instance of the Tremendous Trifle with a clever, saucy style of repetition in response to a social affront. Richard has described him as unspeakably pompous, objecting to being served by the shop clerk (rudely seen as “a mere boy who did not know his business”) instead of the proprietor of a jewelry store; he is informed that the proprietor was “out,” a euphemism meaning that the proprietor did not wish to be bothered (MD 173). Hugh throws the expression back at the clerk, refusing to purchase anything until Mr. Dubonnet “chose to be in,” a  recognition of the rude euphemism which it is. The humorous effect of the echo is great but the pompous manner concerns a mere trifle.

Another instance of the Tremendous Trifle is the legalism offered by Lady Bruton’s exaggerated admission to the crime of “false pretences” or plagiarism in this case. In the high burlesque of a woman of pedigree, Lady Bruton invites her “toadies” to help her write a letter to the Times. Unable to do so herself, she has Richard and Hugh, as ghost writers, draft the missile which will presumably be published over her signature (MD 157). Their skill is satirized as an hyperbolic property of men, not women, men  being “in mysterious accord” with “the laws of the universe.” A mock analysis of literary stylistics, as pompous as Hugh himself, includes “deference to people’s feelings” instead of taking “risks”; clichés regarding those who have conspicuously “done their duty” (“the times are ripe” and “what we owe to the dead”) all for a letter to the editor, are hardly Periclean oratory (MD 166-167). Comedy lies in the disparity between the pretensions and the product.

Septimus Smith also perpetrates the Tremendous Trifle, exaggerating about leaving home because his mother lied, which passes for cause. It is hyperbole, the mother presumably accused of being annoyed at his coming down to tea “for the fiftieth time with his hands unwashed” (MD 127). This appears as a small excuse for a large consequence, driving a mock hero forth into the world, his patriotism eventually rolled up in literature and his lovely tutor. An exquisitely fastidious incongruity elicits a sympathetic chuckle on behalf of this young man who “went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole” instead of fighting for king and country (MD 130). It is a Romantic notion that art and love might inspire the happy warrior according to the underlying heroic narrative. Here it is the bathetic fallacy associating sentiment with otherwise serious issues; incongruity occurs when the expected patriotic phrases are replaced by the unexpected and absurd (as in Alexander Pope’s art of “sinking”) – it is an anticlimactic let-down.

Septimus’s war is an almost trivial event as understood by different people in different ways. According to Mr. Brewer’s equally anticlimactic miscalculations it “smashed a plaster bust of Ceres, ploughed a hole in the geranium beds, and utterly ruined the cook’s nerves” (MD 129). Incongruity produces the bathos of trivia which civilians manifest as non-combatants in a war which they experience as if they were suffering without awareness of real wartime sufferings and which is beneath contempt. They illustrate a version of the Tremendous Trifle.

Clarissa’s romantic history which assumes a very large dimension in her youth is revealed indirectly through rhetorical devices. The aposiopesis – a sentence which is broken off but finished in the reader’s imagination ­– is often a case of the speaker’s unwillingness or inability to finish the revealing sentence. This device occurs several times; sometimes the speaker is overcome with emotion or is unwilling to complete the statement because of better judgment. Words omitted, funny by virtue of their meaning’s being hidden, may imply untoward situations; this is the case when Clarissa, conscious of truth, begins a commentary on memories of Peter’s conflict with her father who seems to have considered him an unsuitable suitor, another common convention which stereotypes Peter: “He never liked anyone who – our friends” (MD 62). This amuses when the reader easily guesses the suppressed information. Peter’s own aposiopesis ends the section when he seizes her “by the shoulders” or almost takes her into his arms: “Are you happy. Clarissa? Does Richard ––“ (MD 71). Elizabeth, the daughter, suddenly enters and we never discover what Richard might or might not do, and fortunately Peter departs before the expected heavy breathing starts.

Nomenclature, again, provides opportunities for comedy. Both Clarissa and Septimus Smith go blank on the name “Peter” which suggests a subconscious acknowledgment of the slang allusion to the male member. Clarissa “could not remember what [Peter] was called”; Peter Walsh’s name however, his “private name which he called himself in his own thoughts” is not “Peter” but rather the name, perhaps an epithet, whispered by the girl whom he incautiously pursues from Trafalgar Square to Cockspur Street (MD 59, 79 emphasis added). Similarly, Septimus “had forgotten [Mrs. Peters’s] name,” the name of Mrs. Filmer’s daughter acquired by marriage to a Mr. Peters (MD 214). The name which causes various persons to stumble is peculiarly associated with Peter Walsh’s anatomy. Although Henke calls our attention to Peter’s epicene nature, his impotence, which involves “the troubles of the flesh”, the matter has not been explored in the detail it merits, but it is a perennial issue which may not be funny to every audience (MD 77). Peter, for himself, claims a liking for women’s society and companionship, women’s “faithfulness and greatness in loving” although [he says] it has its drawbacks (MD 241). Being a “peter” emphatically unable “to come up to the scratch” and “not altogether manly” are incongruencies involving his amorous nature (MD 240-1, 237).

In literary antiquity, impotence is notoriously the consequence for a man who has witnessed a women’s ritual. This is the great Roman taboo which earns exile for the culprit Clodius, the most colorful personality in Roman history (Hoff Invisible 74, 75). The example is always a source of fun. He disguised himself as a woman in order to see the ritual of the Bona Dea in the home of Julius Caesar. The traditional literary punishment for this crime, however, is impotence. In the Satyricon of Petronius, the hilarious mock epic the entire plot hangs on the impotence of the hero who has inadvertently witnessed such a women’s ritual; he remains impotent until the end of the novel. In Euripides’s Bacchae, the man who contrives to witness the ritual in drag is simply torn to pieces.

Here, again, as Bergson has commented, the transposition from the ancient to the modern is comic (it was funny then; it is funny now). The issue is comic for its fantastic result as poetic justice. For Peter the rubric of a ritual scenario is clear; it takes place in the evening when he watches Sally kissing Clarissa; for Clarissa it is a matter of “the revelation, the religious feeling” and the associated sentiments (“the most exquisite moment of her whole life”) which meet the requirements of a sacred event, a women’s ritual (MD 53). Peter is the offending witness. “It was shocking; it was horrible!” He carries the event in mind expressed later by indirect allusion, “a sense of pleasure-making hidden, but now and again emerging … as if he were in the presence of some sacred ceremony to interrupt which would have been impious” (MD 248). “Clarissa had sapped something in him permanently” (MD 241). The subtlety, here, renders the event obscure, yet intelligible.

Structural incongruity is initiated with Clarissa’s early association with her madcap friend, Sally Seton. As a young woman, holding the hot water can, Clarissa recalls being stunned, in arrested posture, under the effect of Sally’s overpowering attraction; it is as if she were frozen in place while she holds the container (MD 51). Much later, years later at Clarissa’s party when  a full-figured Sally has clearly changed for the worse, Clarissa now thinks, “One might put down the hot water can quite composedly”  mocking her previous girlish esteem (MD 260). It is as if the passage of many intervening years, robbing Sally of her attractiveness, finds Clarissa, incongruously, still holding the water can.

A comparable structure concerns matters of the subplot, Septimus Smith and his wife Rezia, who are on their way to see Sir William Bradshaw: “So they crossed” (MD 126). The narrative immediately flashes back to the history of Septimus, Lionel Trilling’s clichéd Young Man from the Provinces who married the equally clichéd Innkeeper’s Daughter. The couple, incongruously left with feet dangling in Harley Street for some 16 pages, resumes walking down the street at last (MD 142). This is comparable to Laurence Sterne’s Shandean device as when Mrs. Shandy is left bending over the keyhole (posture Richard Dalloway compares to reading Shakespeare’s sonnets – MD 113) for many pages, absorbed by the narrative which contains an intervening flashback. In both cases the incongruity is temporal.

The two physicians attending Septimus Smith have their own incongruities. Dr. Holmes’s contradictory prescription insists that Septimus get out of bed and yet perform his sexual duty with his wife: “Didn’t one owe perhaps a duty to one’s wife? Wouldn’t it be better to do something instead of lying in bed?” (MD 139). Dr. Holmes advocates the physically impossible by getting him out of bed. Sir William Bradshaw ensures that he will never perform his duty by sending him to a long rest in bed away from his wife to a hospital, saying of his Rezia, “the people we care for most are not good for us when we are ill” (MD 146, 223). This makes it impossible for him to propagate (anything at all), but specifically his views  (an anticlimactic let-down - MD 150). Ironically, Septimus, like the dead saluted in Lady Bruton’s letter, has  performed his duty, yet is inhibited in his duty by Sir William Bradshaw, a highly ambiguous term. Further, one physician suggests intimacy without reclining; the other makes intimacy impossible while yet reclining. Dr. Holmes has said “There was nothing whatever the matter.” Sir William Bradshaw sees this “a case of extreme gravity” (MD 137, 144). “The collision or coincidence of two judgments that contradict each other” is the essence of the ludicrous (Bergson 97). “Holmes said one thing, Bradshaw another” (MD 225).

The great expectations for the career which Septimus loses by becoming a soldier in the Great War could have featured his brilliant future as expressed by his employer. Mr. Brewer, expects that Septimus would succeed to an executive position, the leather armchair “under the skylight” (MD 129). (There is a saying that in order to hear the gods laugh, simply tell them your plans.) Instead of Mr. Brewer’s glowing expectations, we find Septimus seated in the armchair “under the skylight” in Doctor Bradshaw’s office (MD 147). Here an ideal is suggested and undermined (Fishburn 12). The incongruity is revealed by the distance between the ideal and the real.

At his suicide subsequent to the visit of Dr. Holmes (“Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door … Holmes would get him” -- the tension mounts with deceptive tranquility (MD 226). Septimus had gradually revealed his unstated anxiety about the bananas in his residence in the form of a repetition, as Bergson has said, a favorite device of comedy. This Freudian phallic symbol appears first as Septimus watches light and shadow and the bright yellow bananas, then as a plate of bananas on the sideboard, and finally as he finds himself alone with the sideboard and the plate of bananas (MD 211, 215, 220). The fruit itself is inconsequential; the symbolic implication and the exaggerated repetition itself is laughable -- it depends on pattern recognition. “Repetition … belongs to comedy” (Frye 168). One is reminded of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses and her use of the banana as a dildo, a phallic aspect of the obscenity for which Joyce was criticized. The suggestion here is just as obscene as it anticipates the approach of Dr. Holmes. This supports “Freud’s contention that the doctor is seen as a sexual menace”; Septimus is threatened by the “lustful certainty” of the doctor’s invidious tyranny. “Holmes would get him” (Schlack 54; MD 226). The situation is incongruous as gallows humor.

Laughter is a revolt in social living, a satire on culture, spite aimed at shallowness. Life is risible when it is reversible, laughable when it is rectilinear, but all the more comic when it is circular (Bergson 83). Indentured to a normal life span, Clarissa herself introduces the circular structure of her life with her comic aspiration, comic because of its incongruity, being a line from George Bernard Shaw’s farce, Mrs. Warren’s Profession; it  incongruously associates the society hostess with the aspiration uttered by a world-class Madam, “Oh if she could have had her life over again!” (MD 14). This doubles as a comic allusion and as an insertion of “gravitas” which bears a profound significance. Here Clarissa confirms the fact that “what she liked was simply life”: “How unbelievable death was” (MD 183, 185). Peter assures us that “she enjoyed life immensely,” that her “horror of death,” and her “indomitable vitality” inspire her transcendental theory that the soul, the unseen, might literally survive (MD 231, 232, 236). As Peter has claimed, “a whole life was too short to bring out … the full flavor,” validating Clarissa’s meditation in Bond Street on the immortality of the soul (MD 120).

Here is Clarissa’s confrontation with the problem of human mortality. Having her life over again, an eternally recurrent quality, is a circular movement meaning she would have to do it all over again (Kuhlmann 55). Being deeply invested in her own vitality, her vision is to have a second chance, to be born again, to re-enter life as a liminal event such as coming through a doorway or crossing a threshold. A mystical flash of insight (the eureka experience) occurs when she sees the old lady opposite as she moves about her room; the supreme mystery of life is seen as a preternatural illumination in which human mortality is manifested in a stairway or passageway between different states of being; “here was one room; there another” (MD 193). It also proposes the hubris of a mortal’s aspiration to a god-like immortality (Hoff 31-32). Henri Poincaré comments that such a wish, “insignificant at the outset, culminates … in a result as important as it is unexpected” (in Bergson 81). This is reminiscent of his Butterfly Effect in which a trifling thing such as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in China may become as formidable as a storm in New York City (MD 25). The metaphor promulgates a sensitive dependence on initial conditions, as when Clarissa had opened the squeaking door (MD 3). But she was for the festive celebration of life, her party!

Peter overcomes his reluctance to attend Clarissa’s party, the komos or revel “from which comedy is said to have descended” (Frye 175), where her guests constitute an aggregation of comic personalities, preceded by Mrs. Walker, the truculent cook; essential to the preparations she is a rather salty character. In ancient comedy the cook is required for the operation of the feast (cooks introduce the category usually referred to as Kitchen Humor). Mrs. Walker is such a personality, intimidating and no respecter of persons including the Prime Minister: “one Prime Minister more or less made not a scrap of difference to Mrs Walker” (MD 251). Her situation is an incongruous parody of epic literature, ruling over an incongruous catalogue “not of ships as in Homer, nor of trees as in Chaucer, not of angels as in Milton, but of humble kitchen utensils, i.e. plates, saucepans, cullenders, frying-pans etc (Hoff 222). Traditionally the cook as “tricky slave,” such as Mrs. Walker, has more sense than the employer, and exercises all the authority with which her Downstairs official status endows her (Frye 173, 178). She is not impressed with Clarissa’s words of appreciation, wryly commenting, “’My love to Mrs. Walker,’ that was it one night “ (MD 251).

Characterization at Clarissa’s festive occasion features a wealth of the stereotypical imposters detailed in Francis Cornford’s book The Origins of Attic Comedy in which incongruity is understated for the casual reader, rewarding for others. Gatherings offer the ideal location for satirical observations of the guests. Some are described as fools, other make themselves ridiculous, a sequence of types that Cornford has described in detail as pretenders, or imposters, such as those found in the comedies of Aristophanes; the incongruous link between the present and the past remains a comic device. Most are professional types as “alazones”, almost synonymous with “liar” (Cornford 122).  Cornford’s characters, typically unwashed ascetics, are familiar socialites, befitting Clarissa’s guests; among these are the Learned Professor (Brierly), the Medicine Man (Bradshaw), the Politician (the Prime Minister), and the Parasite (Hugh Whitbread). “The nature of the comic performers intensifies … the lighthearted joking [and] exaggerated manner in which the exposures are effected” (according to the scholar of Aristophanic comedy, Jeffrey Henderson 11). The characterizations are subtle but effectively incongruous in their obvious elite identities often suited to the unstated comic roles of Greek comedy through Cornford’s classical typology.

The narrative treatment of several party guests includes the randy Sir Harry, the Academician who cannot tell Clarissa his stories of the music hall stage and the story of the Duke and the Lady, or take her on his knee because of her “damnable upper-class refinement” (MD 266-267). His limitations as an academy-approved realistic painter – paintings satirized as cattle ”with a certain range of gesture” (from A to B), always standing in sunset pools -- finances his social life.

Also among the guests is Nancy Blow “with an apricot bloom of powder and paint” whose babbling is that of an empty-headed young woman: “She loved Lords, she loved youth” (and her expensive Paris dress makes her look “as if her body had merely put forth […] a green frill” – MD 269-270). She serves to challenge the socially constructed categories of sexual identity as an “imposter.” Miss Blow’s name announces her theatricality as a female impersonator, a man in high drag, a burlesque of femininity. As a sexually ambiguous personage she correctly takes her place among Cornford’s alazons, the other frauds and pretenders. Nancy is a name, in slang, that suggests “nancy-boy” or “miss nancy” meaning an effeminent man. Blow, her surname, refers to fellation. Her escort is Lord Gayton, of course (Hoff 269). As in Jane Ellen Harrison’s account of the conventional spring festival, the May Day celebration includes a man dressed as a woman, sometimes “covered with flowers and greenery.” Cross-dressing is a feature; the figure so costumed appears in the role of the Queen of the May (Harrison 60-61).

Lady Bruton, a name-dropper rather notorious for her militaristic association with “ordering British troops to advance upon an historical occasion” yet unable to draft a letter to the Times, has enough literary knowledge to garble sentimental poetry (MD 150). Her summary of Gaunt’s speech (Shakespeare Richard II) is comic, but the unwitting travesty of Rupert Brooke’s poem, “The Soldier,” (lines 1-4) both parodied and mocked is exemplary, as if her burial “might be found in some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England.” Rather, “to be not English even among the dead – no, no!” (MD 274-275). The famous poem had become a cliché by this time (Hoff 225).

The Prime Minister, Cornford’s “Politician,” is Stanley Baldwin, a current political figure who famously claimed to be a “plain man.” Supplying himself, by his frequently stated, “I am a plain man,” with the weapon used to satirize him, he appears, in exaggerated language, to be a bit plainer than he would have cared to admit; “one couldn’t laugh at him. He looked so ordinary … he tried to look somebody.” Peter concurs; “You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits” (MD 261). The description, consonant with the gentleman’s elaborate claim for being a plain man, his self-effacement, is however incongruous with his appearance as the eminent official. Peter Walsh is thinking of British snobs, “How they loved dressing up in gold lace and doing homage” (MD 262). The Prime Minister later joins Lady Bruton in private conversation, the chamber where Clarissa’s meditations bring her role as a society matron to its climax.

Cousin Ellie Henderson, the Simpleton, has received her invitation to the party, but it came suspiciously late, perhaps as an after-thought, as she is aware. Unaccustomed to circulating among people she hardly knows, she is uncomfortable until Richard Dalloway speaks with her. He soon becomes bored with her endless chatter about the weather, a stand-by when one has nothing to say, and he spots a rescuer in Peter Walsh, an opportunity for him to escape from her with impunity. “He was delighted to see him –– ever so pleased to see him … as if they hadn’t met for a long time” (MD 258). This is true but the double meaning is comic, a difference between what is asserted and what is implied, incongruous because it says one thing and means another. Lady Bruton also finds herself in a situation in which she could never think of anything to say to Clarissa, and she makes a similar escape: “There’s Peter Walsh!” (MD 273).

Aunt Helena, the Loveable Eccentric, seen as a type of comic colonial according to Richards, has no recollection of Peter Walsh’s courtship of Clarissa until she associates him with the uprooted orchids (testicles) she collected in Burma, or Ceylon, or India, in a comic monologue of forgetfulness (Richards 65). “She could not resist recalling what Charles Darwin had said about her little book on the orchids of Burma” (MD 272). “She remembered [Peter] now,” apparently by association in which she feels Peter has been “not quite manly” (MD 237), his orchids being lacking. Aunt Helena’s understated character, “a formidable old lady,” brings with it a hint of the castrating woman (MD 91). The party guests are finally joined by the late arrival of the Bradshaws who add to the festivities by announcing the death of Septimus Smith.

When Clarissa, both shocked and chagrined at the announcement, enters the empty room where the Prime Minister and Lady Bruton had sat, “their fossil imprints still dent the chair cushions …, the expressive contours of a prime minister’s bottom” (Little 49-60). The chairs imitate the sitters, even to their buttocks, “she turned deferentially, he sitting four-square, authoritatively” (MD 279). Lower anatomy is featured in comic discourse; the pedigreed Lady Bruton’s august ancestry is undermined by her present posteriority. Here is the human beneath the mask.

Disquieted, Clarissa leaving her party finds solitude in the room where her eminent guests had sat. Sir William Bradshaw and his wife had announced the suicide of a young man who had been in the army –– Septimus Smith –– a young man who had himself previously encountered the War-time reality of death and now his own. At last Clarissa is forced to confront the problem of human mortality, this time in a young man who has passed through the door of life, a life made intolerable, without hope of having it over again. She devotes much thought to the conclusion of his young life. However, Clarissa’s earlier wish to have her life over again  should be given close examination (MD 14). The novel opens with Clarissa coming through two doors at once with their squeaking hinges, one in Bourton, the family seat, the other in her Westminster home. Now, having her life over again is an aspiration easily satisfied: “But she must go back … And she came in from the little room” (MD 284). The novel closes with Clarissa, going back to Sally and Peter and with lots of people round her, passing through a door once more, marked by Peter’s famous curtain line, “It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was” (MD 284, 296).

The door provides an important structural feature of  repeated significance. Here she is as Peter remembers her talent for “making a world of her own …. She came into a room; she stood, as he had often seen her, in a doorway with lots of people round her … there she was, however; there she was” (MD 114-115, emphasis added). Although the event Peter remembers has the effect of a repeated event (“often”), whether at the beginning or the ending, or merely standing in the middle of his discourse, this is clearly a proleptic reference to his famous concluding observation. Peter’s memory suggests that it has all happened before and is at last happening again. It serves as evidence for the circular structure of Mrs Dalloway which seems to carry its ending and its beginning in its middle (Hoff 122).

Clarissa, like Peter, indicates that the news of the suicide affects her in a way that suggests it too has happened before, “always her body went through it first” (MD 280, emphasis added). Although she and her associates would go on living, Clarissa herself will “gradually revive” when otherwise, like the young man, “she must have perished” (MD 282). When “Clarissa” comes through the door, as if she were passing from one state of being to another at the end of her party, she reappears as a revenant of the young woman, “Clarissa,” of the squeaking door in Bourton, not of the “Mrs. Dalloway” who says she would buy the flowers herself. Hugh Whitbread’s facile compliment that morning has assured her that “she might be a girl of eighteen” which brought to mind her “odd feeling” of being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore. (MD 8, 14). It was not so facile for Clarissa, however, who had “felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged,” having “been dead many times” like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa cited in Pater’s The Renaissance (MD 11, Pater 90). The woman entering upon a different state of being at the conclusion is “Clarissa” as seen by Peter who closes the narrative with the phrase in his previous recollection, “It is Clarissa … For, there she was,” returning to her state as the girl of eighteen (MD 296).

Alkmeon, the Greek medical theorist, has told us that men die because they cannot join the beginning to the end (Kermode 45). Clarissa accomplishes this task magnificently. It is comic, however, “to cover a great deal of ground only to come back unwittingly to the starting point,” or as Poincaré phrases it, to manifest a formidable result derived from such a trifle (Bergson 86). According to Walter Pater, “The fancy of perpetual life … is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life” (Pater 90). Clarissa seems to have summed it up; it is her gift, “to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed” (MD 264). Having joined together the beginning with the end she has her life over again, and again.

                                                                                                                             Molly Hoff

 

 

 

Works Consulted

Ames, Kenneth J. “Elements of Mock-heroic in Virginia

  Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.” Modern Fiction Studies 18 #3,

  1972: 363-374.

Beebe, Maurice. “What Modernism Was: Introduction.”

  Journal of Modern Literature 3 #3-5, 1974: 1065-1084.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the

  Comic. Trans, Cloudsley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. (1911) London: Macmillan, 1998.

Brower, Reuben. “Something Central Which Permeated.”

  Fields of Light. NY: Oxford UP, 1951.

Cornford, Francis. The Origin of Attic Comedy. 1914. Ed.

Theodore Gaster. New York: Garden City, 1961.

Christensen, Inger, The Meaning of Metafiction. Bergen:

Universitetsforlaget, 1981.

Dobrov, Gregory. Ed and intro. The City as Comedy. Chapel

Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Fishburn, Evelyn. “From Black to Pink: Shades of Humor in

  Borges’s Fictions.” Variaciones Borges 12 (2001): 7-27.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton

  UP, 1952.

Goldman, Jane. “Ce Chien est à Moi”: Virginia Woolf and

the Signifiying Dog.” Woolf Studies Annual 13. New York: Pace University Press, 2007: 49-86.

Harrison, Jane Ellen. Ancient Art and Ritual. London: Oxford UP, 1913.

Henderson, Jeffrey. The Maculate Muse. New York: Oxford

UP, 1991.

Henke, Suzette. “Mrs. Dalloway: The Communion of

Saints.” New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf. Reprint. Ed. Jane Marcus. London” Macmillan, 1981.

Hoff, Molly. Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”: Invisible

Presences. Clemson, South Carolina: Clemson University Digital Press, 2009.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense or An Ending. London: Oxford

  UP, 1966.

Kuhlman, Deborah. “Virginia Woolf’s Cyclic Dialectics.”

  Conference of College Teachers of English Studies. 52,

  1987: 55-60.

Little, Judy. Comedy and the Woman Writers. Lincoln: U

Nebraska Press, 1983.

Minow-Pinkney, Makiko. Virginia Woolf and the Problem of

the Subject. Brighton: Harvester, 1987.

Moody, A. D. “The Unmasking of Clarissa Dalloway.”

Review of English Literature Vol.3, no.1, 1962: 62-79.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance, New York: New America

 Library, 1959.

Rachman, Shalom. “Clarissa’s Attic: Virginia Woolf”s Mrs

Dalloway Reconsidered.” Twentieth Century Literature 18, 1972: 3-18.

Richards, Constance. “Comic Colonials and Complicit

  Intellectuals.” On the Wings of the Waves of Imagination. NY: Garland, 2000: 63-66.

Rosenberg, Stuart. “The Match in the Crocus: Obtrusive Art

  in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.” Modern Fiction Studies 13, 1967: 211-220.

Schlack, Beverly. “A Freudian Look at Mrs

Dalloway.” Literature and Psychology 23 @2: 49-58.

Shattuck, Roger. Marcel Proust. New York: Viking, 1974)

Strachey, Lytton. “The End of General Gordon.” Eminent

  Victorians. 1918. New York: Capricorn, 1963: 233-338.

Wilkins, John. “Comic Cuisine” Food and Eating in the

Comic Polis.” In Dobrov 250-268. 

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. Ed. Andrew

McNeillie. London. Hogarth, 1984.

-  -  - .  Mrs Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, 1925.