Reading Virginia Woolf's novel



A  Study in Likenesses: The Double in Mrs Dalloway

“There is the question of indecency, for instance, which plagues us  and puzzles us more than it did the Elizabethans.”

                                          “The Patron and the Crocus”  Virginia Woolf


The double in literature is a metaphysical fiction, a fantasy that emphasizes its own fictiveness. It is an archetype, a pattern frequently repeated in metafiction, which bears an extensive history in literature. It represents a form of characterization found in the self-conscious novel, a stylistically ostentatious feature common in egocentric literature which draws attention to itself in various designs.  “In her 1928 Modern Library ‘Introduction’ to Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf revealed that Septimus Smith was Clarissa’s double” (Beverly Schlack “A Freudian Look”). According to Harvena Richter, at the time of this plan Virginia Woolf “was sketching out the essay ‘The Russian Point of View’” perhaps with Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Double, in mind (Richter 118). This is not in itself remarkable except for the fact that she deploys this old familiar device like a self-inflicted wound. It is even more remarkable that critics have not jettisoned this novel containing such a technically out-of-date convention.  It remains for the figure of the double, largely effaced in the narrative itself, to justify itself aesthetically.

The double as a device of characterization serves as an aid to character analysis but also implies a quantity of reflexiveness, even in the doubling of contexts. Doubles function as mutual reflectors of characters due to a resemblance at some level suggesting that events that befall one will influence, in some manner, those which also befall the other. The varied types of uncanny doubles include the Doppelgänger, the foil, the alter ego, the scapegoat, assorted twins, surrogates and other replicas. This essay will approach the matter simply as “the double.” Familiar literary doubles, subsequent to the comedy of errors in The Menaechmi of Plautus, systematically drawing attention to themselves, include Jekyll and Hyde as alter egos, Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay as surrogates, Miss Havisham (a sham) and Magwitch contrasted as true and false benefactors, and Heathcliff and Catherine as spiritual twins. This seems a worthy company for comparison with the double as a device in this novel.  Still, in order to consider the self-consciously conventional double as a currently valid archetype, one must overcome the impulse to “throw out the bath water without losing the baby” (Barth “The Literature of Exhaustion” 25). Meanwhile it is helpful to know that the double is often a conspicuous component of self-conscious novels.

Evidence for self-consciousness in Mrs Dalloway approaches an embarrassment of riches concerning its shapes and patterns. As a ludic creation, the self-conscious novel is a game of aesthetic satisfaction which, according to Plato’s Phaedrus (277e), is not to be taken seriously.  The vigorous application of such literary devices of reflexivity tend to disrupt illusion. There are many of these, enumerated according to Brian Stonehill, by which Mrs Dalloway, as well, exploits its self-consciousness. The novel flaunts “intertextual overkill” (misprisions, not quotations) as covert evidence of its artifice that indicates fictive self-consciousness; the novel’s “frequent and prolonged allusions to other literary works” are disguised as one might hide stolen merchandise (Waugh 145, 149, Kellman 7). In Mrs Dalloway there exists a marked consciousness through its awareness of, allusions to, and  references regarding significant events anchored in previous literary works. A work containing so many recycled works of literature within itself is specifically and self-consciously literary, choosing to deviate from ordinary modes of expression.  Several fictive techniques on the subject of writing that show the literariness of Mrs Dalloway, its verbal artfulness rather than a mere reflection of the outside world, will follow.

  Assorted letters, particularly Lady Bruton’s letter to the Times, suggest the evidence of the conventional epistolary novel. Also, several of the characters including the Dalloways themselves are fictional characters from previous novels, specifically those Virginia Woolf herself has written. Conspicuously, the multiplicity of narrators calls attention to the discourse as a composition by which each contributes an individual point of view (Peter, Maisie Johnson, Doris Kilman, and all the rest) that obviates the usefulness of a narrator except for the occasional personal address. The novel further dramatizes an aerodynamic author writing unintelligible words in smoke in the sky inspiring varying interpretations from the onlookers much as literature itself is viewed in various ways. Assorted bits of linguistic self-consciousness as colloquial speech on the street describe the sight: “There’s a fine young feller aboard of it Mrs. Dempster wagered” (MD 31, 40).

Peter Walsh, a failed scholar, expresses his desire to go to the Bodleian Library at Oxford for literary research and comments on the traffic like “little boats … tossing on the waters,” reminiscent of recent works of literature like “little boats now tossing out at sea” in Woolf’s own words (MD 249, CR 240). The narrative style he exhibits is often artificially ostentatious in structures such as the 67 words of the epic simile, “just as it happens on a terrace in the moonlight … so Peter Walsh did now” (MD 63). The prolix simile of 191 words, impressions on the changing of the London day, “Like a woman who had slipped off her print dress” with its lovely elaborated convoluted sentence, is highly artificial beyond ordinary verbal artfulness (MD 245). Indeed there is a distinct difference in this novel between ordinary language and its “literariness.”

In the subplot, metaphors made literal for characterizing the madness of Septimus Smith, who has seriously pursued the development of manliness, include “a dog becoming a man” which exposes self-consciousness of linguistic composition (MD 39). Linguistically opaque language, “which bubbles up in the song of the old woman in Regent’s Park,” singing of love, “ee um fah um so,” draws attention to illegibility itself.  The artificiality of the character’s names is a distraction (Peter, Dick, Holmes, Kilman, Whitbread) that tends to dehumanize them; such playful onomastics has no relation to reality (Richter 140). Reflexivity in the self-conscious novel particularly is emphasized by means of the mimetic falsity of various mirrors as a motif of illusion. Novel stylistic features in Mrs Dalloway proliferate.

The greatest reminder of artifice is the circular structure of the narrative that is the fruit of its own production, a fusion of method and content, “should the whole course of the track be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle” (Woolf CR 146).  This characteristic, artifice, is the fundamental condition -- “No story is ‘naturally’ annular” (Stonehill 27). “The final line … returns the narrative to the beginning” for a second reading (Kellman 3). As if acknowledging this fact, Clarissa aspires to have her life over again, and she meditates on what is presumed to be her death, that “all this must go on without her”; her problem is resolved in the belief that she might survive through her former lover, Peter Walsh -- they “lived in each other.” As her principal narrator, covertly a reference to method, he makes it possible for her to have her life over and over again as she wishes (MD 12, 14). Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa “she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave” (Pater 90). Peter recalls Clarissa coming into a room, “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).  The dramatic effect of this embedded text occurs with Clarissa finally coming through a doorway as in the beginning, after having “lost herself in the process of living” (MD 282). Peter concludes the novel saying, as in the past, “There she was,” implying that this is merely one of the occasions when Clarissa would come back, “a fantasy of immortality,” as “the satisfaction of a long delayed desire” (MD 114-115, 296; Kellman 9, Jones 49).

“The frequent use of doppelgangers is yet another aspect of artifice by means of which the novel draws attention to its own fictionality” and is the means whereby Mrs Dalloway finally achieves critical mass as a self-conscious novel. Doubles are personified mirror images; in cases involving a lesser degree of physical resemblance, the actions of the characters may appear conspicuously symmetrical  (Stonehill 20-28). For Sigmund Freud the idea of the “double” concerns the concept of persons “who are to be considered identical by reason of looking alike,” partly he says, as a denial of the power of death (Freud “The Uncanny” 140; at this time Leonard and Virginia Woolf were Freud’s publishers in England). In Freud’s theory of immortality, the “marked or familiar path ends again and again in a return to one and the same spot” (Freud 144). He credits Otto Rank in his book The Myth of the Birth of The Hero for a discussion of the double and the fear of death “as it appeared in striking examples in German, French, Russian, English, and American literature from Goethe to Oscar Wilde” (Tucker). According to Freud, however, the double takes on a different aspect later. “From having been an assurance of immortality, [the double] becomes the ghastly harbinger of death,” a sign that suggests one’s death is imminent (Freud 141). This concept of the double should draw the reader into speculations on its relevance in Mrs Dalloway (Hutchinson 75).

The double plot structure in which the sub-plot may serve as a foil for the main plot, as in Mrs Dalloway where the narrative is made up of the plot concerning Clarissa but who is shadowed by Septimus Smith as her double, is said to be a characteristic of “literariness.” The likeness or contrasting unlikeness between pairs of characters repeats the device, systematically drawing attention to itself, although continually varying its way of doing this as in duplicative relationships with other aspects of the narrative. As a group other pairs of characters, too, share something in common or something contrasting. For instance, two gentlemen exemplify Clarissa’s opposing love interests as an inverted parallel, her husband Richard, the conservative MP, and Peter Walsh, her socialist lover who complements her youthful intention to abolish private property. Similarly, Isabel Pole, Septimus’s pre-war inspiration to patriotic service, and Doris Kilman, the political dissident, are similarly tutors, although in many ways they are opposites. Furthermore, “as the novel progresses, various elements of Clarissa … appear” (Richter 112). Lady Bruton resembles Clarissa as hostess but on a smaller scale as her intimate luncheon party anticipates Clarissa’s … greater event the same day. Rezia as wife to Septimus Smith resembles Clarissa as Richard’s wife, and both are seamstresses to some degree. Even Clarissa herself is a self-contained double, “being Mrs Dalloway, not even Clarissa anymore” (MD 14).

The unlikely pair that most often suggests a dual relationship, in ironic ignorance of one another, consists of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith when their birdlike qualities are characterized symmetrically. Clarissa is seen as “beaked like a bird” and Septimus is “beak-nosed,” a feature reminiscent of Gogol’s “The Nose” (MD 14, 20). Scrope Purvis endows Clarissa with “a touch of the bird” while Septimus is seen as a “hawk or crow” (MD 4, 225). Peter views Clarissa “flirting up and down like a wagtail”; Septimus hops “from foot to foot,” all analogies for people completing one another (MD 234, 226). Structurally, a further symmetry, Clarissa observes her elderly neighbor climbing her stairs; Septimus’s suicide is accompanied by an old man opposite coming down his stairs (MD 191, 226). Oddly, Clarissa is momentarily unable to remember Peter’s name; similarly, Septimus has forgotten the name of Mrs. Peters (MD 59, 214). Finally, in dying, Septimus is seen as a surrogate for Clarissa as a different version of herself. Clarissa as well draws the conclusion herself: “She felt somehow very like him” (MD 283).

Multiple personality, the subject of Mrs Dalloway as a work of art, is a display of narrative devices making “use of the mythic double, the archetype or myth-twin of the self whose shadow stands just behind that of the character” (Richter 123). According to Richter Septimus is the irrational, uncontrolled unconscious as opposed to Clarissa’s controlled rational conscious. In Mrs Dalloway, however, they differ from one another generically as well; the subplot concerning Septimus is a collage of folktales, each a parody of earlier forms which gives the metafictive novel “a satirical aspect” (Christensen 154-155). Yet the disparity between art and life describes Clarissa’s youthful romantic narrative continues simply as the typical portrait of a lady. Septimus’s biography, shaped at first like the conventional Bildungsroman, parodies him as Lionel Trilling’s Young Man from the Provinces who “came down to tea for the fiftieth time with his hands unwashed” could “see no future for a poet in Stroud,” parental conflict (with his lying mother) being a typical device worthy of Dickens (MD 127). The mock hero has three chances to succeed and fails at all three. First, in his humble London lodgings off the Euston Road, studying Antony and Cleopatra under the tutelage of Miss Isabel Pole who fosters his literary efforts, he might be found writing, “tearing up his writing” or “finishing a masterpiece at three o’clock in the morning” (MD 129). With Septimus now seen as an artist figure, his story has morphed into a Künstlerroman. Second, his sympathetic employer, Mrs. Brewer foresees a brilliant future, until the War intervenes as the third component.

Becoming a man, Septimus who has adopted several different identities volunteers to save England and goes to war, his third chance at success; the novel continues self-consciously with reworked familiar narrative shapes, moving through fable forms in which the protagonist is entirely conventional as writer, soldier, or lover. Presently, in the trenches where “the soldier’s tale” unfolds under the intimate influence of his officer, Evans, it is masked as a beast-fable, “ a case of two dogs playing on a hearth-rug,” and as a pair of dogs they can also be viewed as doubles; their relationship is similar to “Clarissa’s intense friendship for Sally Seton,” when they walked on the terrace together and Sally kissed Clarissa: “the revelation, the religious feeling (MD 53; Richter 119). The similarity between Clarissa and Septimus is reinforced by this seemingly innocuous narrative.

Many have commented on the likeness between Clarissa’s intimate relationship with Sally Seton and Septimus’s wartime friendship with Evans (MD 46-47, 130). Yet the instance of religious importance when Sally kisses Clarissa has inspired much more critical attention than that of Septimus and Evans on the “hearth-rug” when  “they had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other.” The “gladiatorial” match between Birkin and Gerald, the characters in Lawrence’s 1920 novel, is analogous to the two dogs in the Dalloway text, “one worrying a paper screw, snarling, snapping, giving a pinch, now and then, at the old dog’s ear; the other … growling good-temperedly.” The success of literary allusion depends on the reader’s willingness to recognize the parallel; the relationship between the soldiers deliberately conceals D. H. Lawrence’s “Gladiatorial” from Women in Love as the two naked men wrestle on the “thickly carpeted” floor, an example of erotic defamiliarization (MD 130 italics added). The thrust of Gerald “seemed to penetrate into the very quick of Birkin’s being. “ “They seemed to drive their white flesh deeper and deeper against each other.” Birkin “seemed to penetrate into Gerald’s more solid, more diffuse bulk.” “It was as if Birkin’s whole physical intelligence interpenetrated into Gerald’s body.” “The physical junction of two bodies clinched into oneness” (“Gladiatorial” Women in Love 274-275). Richter claims it is a mistake to see the suggestion of homosexuality in the cases of Septimus and Clarissa; there is, however, a great deal more here than “ambivalent feelings” (Richter 119 and note 15). More likely, Septimus and Evans function in the  surrogate role for one another. The death of Evans who is Septimus’s double here apparently bears out the ambiguous status of the double as the harbinger of death.

When the truce had been signed, the “fabulous” nature of the  collage that consists of traditional narratives, Septimus’s next literary “folk-tale,” resumes when he marries the innkeeper’s daughter, a notorious cliché (MD 131). Returning to London after the War, the couple doubles back, describing a circle as with the novel containing it, now in lodgings off the Tottenham Court Road. Septimus is promoted by Mr. Brewer although he finds that now Antony and Cleopatra have shriveled utterly and Rezia, his wife, has replaced Miss Isabel Pole. (MD 133). The physicians treating him disagree about his post-war mental condition. The difficulty of judging fictions is allegorized vis-à-vis the two physicians, medical doubles of one another, who are attending him. As Woolf has said, “two critics at the same table at the same moment will pronounce completely different opinions about the same book” (Woolf CR 231). Dr. Holmes, like a liberal literary critic who values free expression asserts, “There was nothing whatever the matter” (MD 137). For Sir William Bradshaw who makes it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views it is quite otherwise, an obscene text which must be impounded; “it is a question of law” (MD 146). Functioning as censor, he shut people up (MD 154). Such texts must be silenced when they “provoke the anger and irritation of the guardians of this law, the literary traffic cops” (Sollers 61).

As the situation for Septimus Smith has deteriorated, resulting in his suicide, the party planned has steadily approached. Clarissa’s friends met during the day have returned to the event that the presence of the Prime Minister has enhanced. It appears to be a successful party until the Bradshaws arrive. With her horror of death, Clarissa is understandably indignant when the Bradshaws mention the death of Septimus at her party which she has dedicated to life. The mysterious effects of the news of the suicide of the anonymous “young man” in the middle of Clarissa’s party intended to benefit her is difficult to comprehend since, as is the curious style in Mrs Dalloway, a great deal has been left out. Virginia Woolf renders meaning through unverbalized thoughts, “what people do not say” (Richter 58). Here, a final literary convention, i.e. a reworking of fantasy or myth, “directs the reader’s attention towards certain features which the writer wishes to stress”; here it is “an integral part in the conception of the material” (Hutchinson 74).

Clarissa has repeatedly assured her friends, Peter and Sally, that she will come back when she retreats into the little room to meditate on the suicide of that young man who must have valued life as much as she. The careful reader should remember her horror of the scene during the party, la fête qui tourne mal, when she learns of his suicide “in which we can see them merge into one personality,” as a whole life, a complete life (Page 115; MD 63-64). “Up had flashed the ground; through him blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes and then a suffocation of blackness.” As his mystic double they are psychologically joined at the hip like Siamese siblings; she hears the “thud, thud, thud in his brain … So she saw it. But why had he done it?”  This is not a rhetorical question. Clarissa provides a response.  “A thing there was that mattered. Death was defiance.” Septimus had offered his rationale long ago; “I’ll give it you!” he had cried (MD 226). “Death was an attempt to communicate,” a final self-conscious reference to method that reiterates  fictiveness.

“Had he plunged holding his treasure?” No, he had flung his life away, unlike Clarissa who had once thrown a mere shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more, nothing that mattered. The behaviors they perform as doubles are structurally similar yet dissimilar in relative worth. The shilling, for Clarissa, is nothing of value and curiously, it is her disaster, her disgrace. The context parallels the deliberately concealed myth of the Ring of Polycrates, mentioned twice in Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” (Freud 141, 146; Herodotus Histories 3.40-43). Polycrates is the tyrant of Samos, thought to be too successful, who has been told that his material success will likely be lost unless he follows counsel from the pharaoh of Egypt; the advice given him is to throw away whatever he most values in order to escape disaster and disgrace. According to the myth he threw away a jeweled ring into the sea which unfortunately came back to him in a fisherman’s catch. Consequently he lost the pharaoh’s friendly association for having such luck that disaster was to be certain. The myth, a common device, prefigures the outcome since Septimus, too, whose gift, his life, is a thing that mattered and had “thrown it away.”  He is unlikely to return.

The myth of Polycrates mitigates the seemingly crass sentiments Clarissa expresses that refer to the fantasy they apparently describe. “She felt glad he had done it,” implying the realization that he had done it on her behalf, “thrown it away,” killed himself when she had been so niggardly as to throw away a mere shilling into the Serpentine.  Otherwise Clarissa’s thoughts ring harsh and unkindly unless the context of myth is clear. “She felt very like him.” Septimus, as her surrogate has complied, where she reneged, in “an act of impulsive generosity” (Page 124).  “He made her feel the beauty” of his act; he made her feel the fun” (MD 280-284). Clarissa sees the truth, Septimus the insane truth (is it a folie à deux?) as Woolf herself has suggested. As the beneficiary of his gift, Clarissa is now in a position to have her life over again; she need fear no more the heat of the sun expecting that the unseen part might survive, even be recovered (MD 232). “The more successful the method, the less it attracts attention” (MD 14; Woolf “Introduction” viii). Clarissa comes back to her party, as she had promised, in a wave of vitality. Alex Page has observed, “she has been saved from the danger to which her wonderful sensibility has exposed her” (Page 124). Walter Pater has further commented, “The fancy of a perpetual life … is an old one,” such that Clarissa “might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea” (Pater 90). “And she came in from the little room” (MD 284).

Virginia Woolf offers a few words of counsel on behalf of such literature so aware of itself that it repeatedly depends on writerly scholarship to make sense of its conventions such as the double. “As for the critics whose task it is to pass judgement upon the books of the moment, whose work, let us admit, is difficult, dangerous, and often distasteful, let us ask them to be generous of encouragement, but sparing of those wreaths and coronets which are so apt to get awry, and fade, and make the wearers in six months time, look a little ridiculous” (Woolf CR 240). Mrs Dalloway anticipates modern fictional self-consciousness that had already been seen in Tristram Shandy (“and did it not come with a shock to open Tristram Shandy?” –CR 152) which offers such marks of innovation as in this novel. The mythic justification for the surprising conclusion to Mrs Dalloway in an otherwise realistic narrative features characteristics of Magic Realism that self-consciously deploys fable, folktale, and fantasy as its method. These features lend themselves to the claim of the art of fiction suddenly “come alive and standing in our midst for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured” (Woolf CR 154). These validate this study of doubles in literature as an activity of the human mind which should be cherished.

                                                                                                                                               Molly Hoff



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Jones, Danell. Rev. of “Shell Shock and the Modernist Imagination,”

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Kellman, Steven G. The Self-Begetting Novel. NY: Columbia UP, 1980.

Kelley, Joyce. “Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde Park Gate.” Virginia Woolf

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Lawrence, D. H. “Gladiatorial.” Women In Love. NY: Viking, 1920:


Page, Alex. “A Dangerous Day: Mrs. Dalloway Discovers Her

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Richter, Harvena. The Inward Voyage. Princeton: PUP, 1970.

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Sollers, Phillipe. “The Novel and the Experience of Limits.”

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-  -  -  - “Introduction.” Mrs Dalloway. New York: Modern Library, 1928.

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