Reading Virginia Woolf's novel



It Goes Without Saying: The Rhetoric of Omission in Mrs Dalloway


                                                      “She stimulates us to supply what is not there”.

                                             Virginia Woolf The Common Reader  138, “Jane Austen.”


                             “Fiction is as much what is said as what is not said” Raymond Federman


An important creative aspect of Virginia Woolf’s  Mrs Dalloway, the difficult art of omission, has remained unnoticed. This feature is partially responsible for making this novel notoriously problematic. It seems that leaving out specifics or simply remaining silent on matters which may be easily comprehended by the sophisticated reader relieves the narrator of giving details. As Hugh Whitbread insinuates, there are such matters which even Clarissa Dalloway “would quite understand without requiring him to specify” (MD 7). This essay demonstrates the techniques of narration by preterition or “what people do not say but what their behavior and attitudes say for them” as an issue concerning communication (Richter 58).

The best critics have seemed to be unaware that narration and dialogue are being used in ways that conceal rather than reveal; these ways obscure rather than inform. Although Clarissa is capable of subtlety, opening two doors at once in the very beginning, (one presently at Westminster, the other long ago at Bourton), the current policy is to leave many other doors unopened; “she would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or that “ (MD 11). Like Jane Austen, “what she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial” (Woolf CR 138-139). The theorist Wolfgang Iser among others is concerned with the “unwritten” aspects of “often apparently trivial or commonplace scenes, the words which are left unsaid … which represent a major form of game between narrator and reader” (Hutchinson 22). Silence on unspoken essentials, “this or that,” is a central feature which will be closely examined here.

Various subjects for scrutiny of Mrs Dalloway have included war, sex, madness, all perfectly justified. Relatively unimportant matters like parties receive some attention, whereas significant omissions including the thematic importance of life, and life as a gift, remain unspoken. Clearly, following the inscrutable technique devised by Jane Austen, the narrative style implies “not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid” (CR 145). Of course, no one would seriously contemplate the study of such topics which repose in complete silence. Yet, in several important areas there is evidence of this technique of deliberate suppression of pertinent matters by omitting words rather than by expressing them, deleting words rather than divulging them.  Virginia Woolf is known to have made use of this practice. Her novel Jacob’s Room is a continuous narrative which describes a void in place of the central character. According to Northrop Frye, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves “is made up of speeches of characters constructed precisely out of what they do not say, but what their behavior and attitudes say in spite of them” (Frye Anatomy 234). Mrs Dalloway exploits a similar stylistic. This failure of communication thwarts critical  examination of many concepts which may seem of little relevance to the events occurring in this novel. It is difficult, admittedly, to analyze matters which have not been expressed.

Such games restrict the readership to an imaginative elite adapted to texts containing many esoteric allusions in the “unwritten” parts of the text “which suddenly become full of meaning” (Woolf CR 142). Information which is concealed or suppressed by equivocations and partial reasoning contributes to the enigmatic nature of such narratives (Hutchinson 24-26). Others which derive from preformed language “do not take words directly from their source … with a consequent greater chance that they may pass unnoticed” (Hutchinson 57). The reader, it is hoped, will discover such allusions and the motives as well. The matter to be conveyed may consist in a statement which seems absurd, or even run counter to accepted opinion but, which on closer inspection is in fact well founded as the extraordinary; these may at first appear commonplace.

Omitted words and suppressed motifs often make matters difficult for analysis of such issues which might appeal to the reader’s imagination. The aposiopesis (a sentence fragment in which the missing thought is to be supplied by the reader’s imagination) serves as a trope or a simple analogy for this phenomenon; words are missing in both cases. Thus Clarissa comments to Peter Walsh on her father’s displeasure concerning her suitors: “But he never liked anyone who –- our friends” (MD 62). We are invited to imagine these  scenes with Peter as occasions of domestic discord. Here, too, is an early allusion to the troubled relationship between Clarissa and Peter in which careful observation invites discovery of other missing thoughts particularly when Clarissa, in bed with headaches following their quarrels, thinks back. “How they argued” (MD 53, 9). It would seem this documents their lovers quarrels, “how Clarissa burst into tears” (MD 95). Such unspoken hints are like falling atoms which will shape themselves as a luminous halo if we but connect the dots (Woolf CR ”Modern Fiction150).

Consequently, overlooked evidence leaves a large gap in the narrative as the result of such stylistic omissions which are not entirely devoid of useful meanings. There may be valid connections for various more obvious scholarly scenarios. Still, it may be just as valid and rather more interesting to approach suppressed sentimental values first, and to embrace coherent literary themes such as the familiar marriage theme in place of various topics of a more erudite nature. Matters of privacy, matters of love “underlie the novel’s mode of reception” (Segal 6). Ruth Gruber has observed that this novel “is a constant retracing of past themes” (Evans 73).

Among readers searching for textual richness, through practices which treat this novel as a “document to be related to some verbal area of study outside literature,” many fail to recognize the fact that matters pertinent to literature as a thematic component have been omitted (Northrop Frye Critical Path 15-33). Often compared unfavorably with James Joyce’s Ulysses, a similarly problematic work, Mrs Dalloway, too, makes use of style in narrative related to the significance of those which obtain in Joyce’s novel (McBride “At Four She Said” 21). Although it has been said that “Woolf copied Joyce and bungled the imitation,” the dialogic relationship they share extends beyond the Homeric paradigm (Garvey 300). Other readers, assuming literature as itself a coherent structure are oblivious to missing words, some buried but not entirely hidden. Since examples of conventional practices have already been fully covered elsewhere, this essay will explore the buried phrases suggesting the marriage theme involving Peter Walsh, manifested through the device of the “enigma” and its related ironies instead. Facilitated by the critical tool of various relevant yet obscured  allusions, this essay will study this theme as an exercise in reception theory,  i. e. a theme developed within the relationship between text and reader.

It may be quite profitable to see “what meaning [can] be discovered from the stylistic context in literature” (Frye Critical Path 15). This approach should yield much that is significant in this highly nuanced novel which is the perfect hostess to unidentified literary allusions (attributions omitted); the critical yield is substantial when the reader is assisted by references to ancient literature, such as Homer as in the case of Joyce, which themselves supply productive guidelines even if important presences have been suppressed. Readers must calculate the implications of these allusions if they are studied within the relevant contexts (Iser Implied 228). Yet, sometimes anything that is inconsistent or what seems to be quite negligible may escape our notice or may even be deliberately disregarded (Woolf CR 141). For example, when he is interrupted by the entrance of Elizabeth Dalloway, Peter Walsh offers an exemplary query with words left out; “Tell me,” he said, seizing her by the shoulders. “Are you happy, Clarissa? Does Richard –-“ (MD 71). The importance of what Richard may or may not do, a small problem in communication, will be examined.

Thus, if we see only what seems to make sense, we may reject important matters which may not fit with preconceived notions instead of considering a few items in conflict with surface narrative in this so-called realistic novel. Fantastic elements have no place here, it is presumed. Since important references are apparently being omitted from a supposedly complete narrative, some source of assistance  must be found. Anything less would be marked as a vacuous undertaking.

Such omissions have been detected, according to McBride, in James Joyce’s Ulyssses in which the marital theme is fore-grounded; the unspoken anxiety in Bloom’s uxoriousness never rises to the surface, however. The Dalloway reader, also, must discover what is not being said or not being noticed as in Ulysses (see McBride “Watchwords” passim). The demands which this kind of discourse makes upon the reader are enormous (Iser Implied 232). The rhetoric of omission and studied ambiguity prevails in several places. “The reader … must be gradually ‘schooled’ by the novel itself” (McHale 273).  Mrs Dalloway is just such a novel.

The narrative concerning the courtship of Clarissa Parry and Peter Walsh is characterized through this technique of silence regarding the truth of their relationship. Peter remains one of the problem characters who most invites a sympathetic reading and who supplies, presumably, much of the back-story concerning Clarissa Dalloway for which we trust his accuracy. “He recalls every incident of their painful relationship in precise detail and can summon up intense emotions of that time in all their power” (Zwerdling 135). His descriptions of a sepia-tinted past presumably leave little for the reader to question, but considering the possibility of bias, we should sense that the seemingly impassioned past may not render the whole story.

Peter’s preoccupations regarding the “truth,” demanding that Clarissa tell him the truth, is ironic, being precisely the matter which the concerned reader may never learn (MD 97).  This technique of omission is also found in Joyce’s Ulysses as his hero struggles with the knowledge of his wife’s infidelity (McBride “Watchwords” 357). The hour of four o’clock being the time of Molly Bloom’s projected assignation results in the omission of the word “four” and related words from Joyce’s text thereafter. It seems that a presentation of many matters of interest have likewise been left out of Mrs Dalloway. In truth, any presentation “implies selection, and any selection implies omission” (Iser Implied 231).

Therefore, one must see that Peter is merely ruminating over the past, sharing duties with the narrator’s observations, as in the dual voice of free indirect discourse, by way of his represented thought; he feels no need to justify the mundane specifics with which he is quite familiar. Both Clarissa and Peter share in several significant but omitted references, although Richard Dalloway and Sally Seton, too, are guilty of leaving out significant words. They likewise participate in expressing generalities which leave us wanting. In free indirect discourse there is “a lack of delimitation between the narrator and the character’s language.” This is used “to great effect in the detailed portrayal of a character’s sentiments and feelings and thoughts,” but more factual details may be fragmentary (Fludernick 12, 79).

Peter indicates that something has been left out, that his unburdening is somewhat guarded when we find him thinking ironically “pray God,” that “he might say these things without being overheard” (MD 120). Peter’s ex parte revelations, however, satisfy no one but himself. Readers must be equipped to handle the elaborate pattern of omission, words they have failed to overhear, words that force us to read rather than merely to recognize (Iser Implied 237; Stacy 105).

It hardly needs to be said that Clarissa herself offers a few generalities of her own point of view concerning Peter and what a marriage with him might be like: “everything had to be shared; everything gone into”-- with much that is left out of the pertinent issues (MD 10). Peter’s policy is clearly in conflict with Clarissa’s currently stated philosophy of matrimony which was then seen as a catastrophe and which now ostensibly calls for “a little independence” and respect for the gulf necessarily existing between husband and wife (MD 10, 181). While Peter gives us matters which only appear to be detailed specifics, Clarissa provides an equally obscure alternative story. Never one for rash judgment Clarissa reassures herself that she was right to refuse him, and having little to assist the reader we must take her at her word (MD 10). Peter who had been in love with her has much to say about that scene in the little garden by the fountain which brought matters to a conclusion; if these matters had been ignored and they had married “they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined” (MD 96,10). Yet this appears to be merely  overstatement typical of Clarissa’s tendency to exaggerate.

Frequent critical evaluations of Peter’s romantic failings include “his selfish possessiveness,” and his “aggressive demanding of total involvement”; or his unseemly chauvinist attitude (Schlack 50; Rosenthal 97). He appears to justify himself since, perforce, we “see things through Peter’s eyes” for at least half of the details of the story (Blackstone 76). None of these observations on Peter’s ways are textually specified; these appraisals in little details are, rather, critical interpolations of speech events only as filtered through the reader’s awareness and which depend on “unexamined assumptions” (Fernald “Thrilling” 32). Still, as Clarissa styles him as something of a scold, it is clear that her affair with Peter has not been merely an amusing adventure in Alexander Pope’s toyshop of the heart (See “The Rape of the Lock,”), a context others have remarked (see  Ames and Schlack “Mrs Dalloway” 55). Although the novel has been styled as a “vehicle for communication,” it seems that many memorable offerings by Clarissa and Peter are not designed to deliver useful information (Ruotolo 158).

Clearly, therefore, one such relevant comment is that Clarissa “simply could not meet the kinds of demands that Peter made on their relationship” whatever they might have been (Rosenthal 97). Frankness is not a characteristic of this text. The absence of detail gives the novel the bitter flavor of the low-hanging fruit of a rather shallow romantic display with little appeal to more scholarly tastes. Peter’s correct assessment, that their marriage would not have been successful, summarizes the wisdom of their separation (MD 236).

Peter frankly admits that his demands have been “absurd”, that he asked “impossible things”, ambiguous matters which contribute to the enigma; such comments seem innocent enough yet will be shown to become quite important (MD 95). “He made terrible scenes”; often such accounts, out of all proportion, only appear “outwardly trivial” which is, still, hardly a deal breaker (MD 95; Woolf CR 138-139). Yet Clarissa will not comply with what is impossible, still less with the absurd. His statements, however confessional they may seem, are coherent, but they refer to another context entirely. “They had always this queer power of communicating without words,” but the reader requires something more. As soul-mates, “going in and out of each other’s minds,“ Clarissa and Peter share a relationship that seems to have been consensual, at least intellectually. Yet we are left out of the particular dialogue which apparently passes between them (MD 90, 94).

Instead, Clarissa married Richard whom Peter claims would make a perfect hostess of her, (a pejorative position) and “stifle her soul,” all because she admitted caring too much for “getting on in the world” (MD 114, 115). It seems that Daisy (Peter’s new amour who is a feature of the “India topos”) will apparently give him what Clarissa (“cold as an icicle”) finds impossible, absurd. Allusion to the India topos in literary history introduces the exotic, the foreign, the richly attractive land especially for employees of the Raj such as Peter (Curtius 159 ff). But, “Why doesn’t [Clarissa] tell us more?  Peter, too, deliberately withholds them from us” (Iser Implied 237). If there is a reason for being so coy, this is for the reader to discern.

Daisy is trivialized at first by Clarissa whose insight, apparently, tells her that Daisy “flattered him; she fooled him,” styling her as one of those “silly, pretty, flimsy nincompoops” in India (MD 68, 10). Something obscured induces Clarissa to make a rather harsh evaluation. Perhaps she knows something we must discover. It may be merely jealousy or the fact that the daisy is also an emblem of deceit. What is not uttered refers to matters of a hidden thematic significance which must be reconstituted. The reader must discover what is not specified in order to render the matter conceptually complete and within an appropriate horizon of expectations by extracting “every shade of meaning” (MD 120).

Daisy’s odd name alone, clearly introducing a form of enigma, should raise a red flag, perhaps if associated with Daisy Miller, David “Daisy” Copperfield, or some other literary daisy which has a similarly abbreviated future. This curious name veils an important element. As in Jane Austen, “the satire is so just that … it almost escapes our notice” (Woolf CR 141). It seems that “the reader is left to … fill in the gaps between the lines.” (Iser Implied 182). “The spaces between them were as significant as the sounds” (MD 33).  

“The stylistics of omission assumes a readership capable of apprehending the important thematic overtones existing between the lines. An understanding of what is not written is important to an understanding of what is written”; for example, the hour of Bloom’s wife’s adultery, “at four,” is consistently obscured (McBride “At Four” 21). Similarly, the daisy points enigmatically to “the existence of a system of equivalences underlying the text”; yet there is still a deliberate “withholding of information” (Iser Act 82, 175). Although dramatic irony results when the reader knows more than the characters, this represents a form of reverse dramatic irony – it is the characters who understand these unvoiced matters perfectly, not the reader, a feature which “carries an implicit compliment to the intelligence of the reader” (Abrams 90).

Linda Hutcheon’s terminology for the written and the not written, i.e. the “said” and the “unsaid”, illustrates the double-coding that results in irony (Hutcheon “Irony”). Irony is the result when two incongruous meanings, one said and the other unsaid, are revealed. Here dramatic irony results with the conjunction between what appears to be the alienating image of a dutiful, an “angelic,” a self-sacrificing wife such as might be found in India, compared with the usually respected generous, loving wife of Western marital tradition. The dramatic irony of the “unsaid” in Peter’s situation gradually unfolds with the challenging nomenclature, “Daisy”, a woman who seems to possess the required characteristics compared with Clarissa who does not.

Although Froissart  presents the daisy as the flower of flowers with the curative powers benefitting those merely holding the daisy, apparently Peter’s Daisy exhibits a  “sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women,” yet lacking in such good women as Clarissa (MD 118). Still, the daisy and its significance have much to offer. As Virginia Woolf herself has suggested we could do well to study “the daisy in Chaucer” which is featured in his Legend of Good Women (Woolf CR 185). We might be accused of deliberate negligence if we disregard this pointed reference, keeping in mind Clarissa’s green dress and Chaucer’s daisy clothed all in green, identified specifically as the mythical queen Alcestis.  The daisy issuing from Woolf’s meticulous scholarship must receive its due attention. Exploiting the myth as a structuring device, the text develops into “a form of enigma which is created by unexpected, even willful, handling of the mythical material” (Hutchinson 76). Peter’s reference to “good women” is clearly an indication that Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women must be relevant. With the introduction of the daisy as a subtle mode of guidance, a potentially significant horizon of expectations has been introduced. Exploiting the fairy-tale of Alcestis in Mrs Dalloway corresponds to the equally fantastic adventures of the pseudo-Odysseus in Joyce’s novel.

      Accordingly, Chaucer, accepting the conventions of the daisy, makes it the specific type of Alcestis smuggled into the narrative as Peter’s Daisy – white purity following the light of the sun – restorer of the current of life, healer of wounds, soother of pains. Still it seems that, in the novel “words are used to conceal rather than reveal” (McBride “Watchwords” 356). The “unsaid” of Chaucer’s daisy concerns Euripides’s tragi-comic amplification of the Greek folktale Alcestis (438 bce) concerning a famous host: Admetus, a man  with a reputation for a godlike hospitality. Contrary to passing opinion however, he is not a “feckless bon vivant” (Heracles is the party animal here); similarly he did not “make the Fates drunk” in order to save himself  (Apollo did that), (Fernald “Review”). He is a  generous host, a perfect host whom the gods have granted a boon,  rewarding him for his famous hospitality, which permits him to escape death (Rehm 94). He needs but find a willing substitute instead of dying himself. Further study reveals details such as the mythos concerning  [Admetus], the all too mortal king of Thessaly facing death, who has “a god [Apollo] for a slave, a demigod [Heracles] for a friend, and most importantly of all, a generous wife [Alcestis] who is willing to die for him” (Arrowsmith 13). And so she goes to the Underworld. The only condition for the gift of her life, truly a gift, to her widowed husband is that he must not remarry.

In her absence Admetus, now bereaved yet unexpectedly receiving Heracles as a guest, considers the cold embrace of a “body double,” a statue, a “surrogate,” a “cold delight” as a replacement for his beloved wife. This coldness is suggestive of the coldness Peter sees in Clarissa. “The Alcestis uses the statue motif primarily as a rhetorical expression of love in absence” and of expressing sorrow as well (Segal 48).  In the comic finale Alcestis, however, mute as a statue and veiled as a bride, famously makes her dramatic reappearance at the side of Heracles to have her life again with Admetus. That is, the queen, Alcestis, dies on behalf of her husband and then  magically returns, (courtesy of Heracles for his gracious host) when the strong man has wrestled her away from Death in the Underworld. After this, as the text quotes from the ancient source, Alcestis lives together with the man who “had not the courage to die, but gave in exchange the woman he married,” and apparently so, happily ever after, having learned from the ancient platitude that knowledge comes through suffering (Alcestis ca. line 955, MD 196). This is the consequence of Heracles’s raucous visit after which he acknowledges his inadvertent violation of the formal observances of mourning when in the bereaved household (see Milton below), all of which is both impossible and absurd.

  However, like James Joyce’s exploiting the nostalgic Homeric epic tale for his own novel, suppressed but for the chapter titles which indicate that the Odyssey supplies the context, this suppressed Greek folktale about Alcestis also energizes the rather banal narrative of Clarissa’s marital life. It  “punctures the illusory self-containment of realistic representation” (Iser Act 81). “As an intertext for Mrs Dalloway, this story …  has some promise” (Fernald:   “Review”: 237). Alienating as she is to modern women like Clarissa, the daisy, Alcestis, is the poster child for the type of self-sacrificing angel in the house that Peter apparently requires. Many like Peter have pursued this type of woman. The role performed by this “Alcestis” which Peter values is remote from Clarissa’s nature. The paradox, however, provides the structural principle for the whole work.

“But suppression of the truth is one of the trademarks of Euripides’s play” (Nielsen 94).  “The equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’, in the Alcestis myth, is death, … death denied and death accepted” (Bradley 113).“The mythic parallel [for Mrs Dalloway] here is more the nature of an explanatory hypothesis, and is scarcely to be interpreted as the return of the myth. It provides simply a repertoire of patterns serving an overall strategy through which the present-day world is to be presented” (Iser Implied 200). Allusions, therefore, link two or more concepts which normally exist in two different cultural contexts. See, for instance, evidence of this repertoire in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Ibsen’s The Doll’s House in which Nora, like Alcestis, will sacrifice herself for her husband, according to Brian Johnston.

Although Alcestis, Chaucer’s daisy, is nowhere mentioned in this novel, she is obviously projected as Daisy, a woman in India who is currently married. In later literature the story is sometimes referenced as King Admetus and his wife, even unnamed. There is here, rather, an elaborate pattern, within a concealing verbiage of omission of reference, characterizing Alcestis without naming her while the reader must resort to “the identification of typologies of plot and scene” (Bradley 112). This omission, of course, contributes to the supposed realism of Mrs Dalloway.

Some inspection reveals what is not specified, that the famous royal, loyal wife of Thessaly is stylistically obfuscated within Peter’s highly selective expression. His intentions to acquire a fully self-sacrificing wife, an “Alcestis”, are completely obscured. The crucial elements are those omitted; the most important matter, Clarissa’s gift, is artfully concealed as well. The subject of vicarious sacrifice benefiting a person whose imminent death would be repulsive to him calls for a surrogate victim. Clarissa who explicitly wishes to have her life over again is not a candidate for this role although having her life over is quite possible in a circular novel (MD 14). Paradoxically, however, in order to have one’s life over again, one must first die, lacking a substitute; life must come to an end, as Salman Rushdie reminds us (Satanic Verses). But everywhere Clarissa’s accent falls on vitality against the gesture of self-sacrifice.

In Alcestis, the primary concern remains as the problem of inescapable human mortality, a perspective Clarissa shares with Peter. Clarissa’s meditations focus on some form of death, to cease completely or to somehow survive; and her reluctance for self-sacrifice suggests that her fundamental problem is not dying but the deadly requisite of selfless devotion and its likeness to human mortality. Thus the discourse redefines the boundaries between man and god, woman and myth (Arrowsmith 5). Clarissa has pondered “whether she must cease completely,” and for her “how unthinkable death was,” while recalling that Peter had married on the boat going to India (MD 12, 185). As Peter’s wife, Clarissa ponders if they both survived, would it be consoling for them to live in each other, a prospect which has deeper significance in the context of Alcestis (MD 12). Even her equivocal quote from Othello, ”if it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy” belongs to the erotic lexicon (Othello refers to sexual death as the consummation of his marriage), not to death itself (see Schlack “A Freudian Look” 57). As Clarissa knows, following the same convention, “there was an embrace in death” (MD 281). Embrace, a euphemism for sex, is consonant.

Chaucer introduces, in a nutshell, Queen Alcestis “that turned was into a dayesye– She that was for hire housbande chees to dye” (Legend “Prologue” lines 510-512). Modern prose translations of the Greek Alcestis such as that by Moses Hadas and John McLean here or in William Arrowsmith’s verse offer greater intelligibility than the stuffy heroic couplets of Gilbert Murray however. Yet his notes serve the modern reader well.

The remarkable generosity that Alcestis manifests in dying for her husband, the “catastrophe,” is debated in Plato’s Symposium 179 c-e. Phaedrus naturally claims that Alcestis died for love. Diotima, on the other hand, asserts that her motive was for enduring fame, in a chivalric past, having made the conventional trip to Hades like a Homeric hero and having come back (Plato Symposium 208d). Northrop Frye includes Alcestis within the group of “calumniated women” who are “violated by death and then vindicated by being restored to life” (Frye Anatomy 219). The inclusion by subterfuge of the Alcestis tale forms the nucleus of the relationship between Clarissa and Peter and overturns some of the fundamental assumptions about Mrs Dalloway. Other things as well may be missing.

These heroic attributes of Alcestis represent  “a considerable gain in the face of long-standing literary misogyny,” and hence she is often featured in women’s studies (O’Higgins 82). Euripides does not solve this quandary of feminine generosity; he only supplies the pertinent events.  Known to be a severely economical dramatist, Euripides is here the most severely so, as economical as Virginia Woolf; and like other Greek dramas, this one also displays a universalizing tendency, the characters appearing in generic, not individual ways (Arrowsmith 4). Yet he leaves nothing out. “Grief for the dying queen reaches out from her domestic realm to include Admetus’s entire kingdom … . The physical weakness of her last moments contrasts with her role as savior and rescuer” (Segal 9, 77). She dramatizes an unearthly reminiscence of vicarious sacrifice according to the forthcoming Christian code. According to Lévi-Strauss, “if two myths go together in some sense – if they have the same meaning or perform the same function – then any formal similarities that can be discovered are likely to be pertinent” (Culler 45-460). It is tempting to assume that in the death of Septimus Smith, who has been viewed as a “Christ figure” and as Clarissa’s “double”, he serves as an “Alcestis” for her as suggested by his enigmatic words, “I’ll give it you” (MD 226). Rather, he offers an enigmatic suggestion of words having been left out as he ponders an offer to communicate some forgotten message (MD 148). Septimus, as foil, however communicates with a parallel motif which accentuates Clarissa’s.

Clearly for Alcestis as for anyone, the prospect of death is abhorrent and the queen’s audience is expected to feel a frisson of horror. “To shock and offend is exactly what Euripides is trying to achieve here” (Beye note 13). Admetus’s characterization remains troubling, even after his realization in the aftermath that life without Alcestis is not worth living. “The negative view [of this man] has tended to predominate” (Segal 251 note 22). There is the skillful presentation of light and dark moments; as Sappho has said, if dying were good the gods would do it too (Sappho 201 LP).

Clarissa’s horror of death or something like it and her indomitable vitality have somehow been interpreted as signs of her subconscious inclination toward suicide when, to the contrary, she actually aspires to have her life over again (MD 286, 231, 14). On the other hand she is bravely holding up under the knowledge of her own mortality as the consequence of a bad bargain. This seemingly would cast her in the role of a person making a willing self-sacrifice. Instead,  “she enjoyed life immensely” and even her famous party is dedicated to life, convictions leading to conflict (MD 118, 184). In Alcestis it is the hospitable king, not his wife, who is the beneficiary of the scheme designed by the gods. Being risk averse and secure, Clarissa feels “those ruffians the Gods, who never lost a chance of hurting, thwarting and spoiling human lives were seriously put out if, all the same, you behaved like a lady” (MD 184, 117).

An infelicitous suitor indeed, Peter’s covert quest for an Alcestis figure in the past has clearly been unsuccessful with regard to his relationship with Clarissa. “She would be frightfully sorry for him; she would think what in the world she could do to give him pleasure (short always of the one thing)“ conveying not only what Clarissa has said but also what she has left unsaid (MD 236; Woolf CR 145); the one unspecified gift being the gift of her life is a significant omission. Obviously, Peter is not inclined to submit to his own death which now might be thought imminent. Thank heavens that Clarissa refused to marry him (MD 68). There will be no  consummation, euphemistic or otherwise.  His lacking a recognition of the properly human place in the worldly scheme of things suggests that Peter, like Admetus, is not a man who knows himself. Each man must do his own dying, sexually and otherwise, not constrain others to do his dying for him (Arrowsmith 11). Here, Peter’s aggressive demands, his selfish possessiveness are consonant with an apparent request for wifely generosity as vicarious sacrifice.

The refusal scenario is anticipated when Clarissa remembers his heated words,  “cold, heartless, a prude he called her. Never could she understand how he cared” (MD 10). When Peter and Clarissa meet at the dribbling fountain in the garden (a very phallic object) Peter demands, “Tell me the truth” several times, expressing the underlying conundrum in this novel which concerns suppression of the truth (MD 96-97). Here again, his request is coherent, intelligible, but the substance of his desires, the nature of the gift remains unstated. Here is the deliberate withholding of information. The descriptions suggest an erotic situation in full throb, Peter grinding against something physically hard. “She was unyielding.”

Considering the unluckily symbolic dribbling phallic fountain which is broken and Peter’s later admission of his inability to come up to the scratch, it would appear that it is his impotence of obscure provenance  (“He was not altogether manly,”) not Clarissa’s rigidity which is at fault, i. e. it is his inability to induce her to “die” in the euphemistic Shakespearean sense (MD 203). This is Peter’s version of the events even though there has been evidence in his favor as he has discovered; “Something very important has happened” (MD 96). Perhaps it represents a premature finding of temporary manliness. As for her life, Clarissa would give him anything “short of the one thing.” There is no indication at that time as to what is the gift she would withhold, but she has her own agenda. Since Clarissa, too, would like to have her life over again, she and Peter have this much in common, an aversion to even a metaphoric death excepting that his marital demands on her, as he has admitted, are absurd, impossible (MD 14). Besides for Clarissa, who will behave like a lady, there is Richard. Always “coming down in white” might suggest that their marriage is in view but refers to meeting Sally Seton (MD 51, 74, 281).

Daisy, on the other hand, “would give him everything! She cried … everything he wanted!” her omitted gift of life “filtered through the consciousness of [Peter] (as in Jane Austen and Dickens)” (MD 238; McHale 277). Virginia Woolf often makes use of comments from her companion book, The Common Reader, in order to clarify obscure issues such as preterition. As Jane Austen represents her heroines, the narrator here  “makes us wonder why an ordinary act of kindness [the omitted gift of life] becomes suddenly full of meaning” (Woolf CR 142).  This gift, however is not an ordinary act of kindness. Peter, aware that he has “got himself into a mess” speculates on marriage with Daisy. “For him it would be all very well, but what about her?” (MD 238). Daisy’s friend, Mrs. Burgess, has the ordinary situation correctly assessed. In addition to giving up her children and being a woman whose elderly husband, Peter, had died, “She’d be a widow with a past ”(MD 238-239). This diminished social position would be true in the normal scheme of things, even outside Daisy’s projected role as Alcestis. Apparently she might not choose to keep her end of the bargain; perhaps she is indeed likely to fool him as Clarissa suggests. Peter, unaware, says he “didn’t mean to die yet,” a rather ambiguous correspondence that suggests an enforcement of Daisy’s sacrificial role in his scheme which would stifle her soul (MD 239).

Peter’s reputation is such that he is often in love with the wrong woman, a feature of his covert pseudo-Homeric emulation of Odysseus, a nod to Joyce; and further, he exhibits a hubristic shallowness for living at another’s expense, having one’s own way. His marital error is that, like Admetus, he fails to perceive his proper modal limitations, his humanity, his mortality (Arrowsmith 14f).  Other characters in Alcestis, both human and divine, recognize their modal constraints. Even the gods “cannot have everything [their] own way” which echoes Death’s speech to Apollo (MD 117; Alcestis ca. line 63). Peter must discover for himself “some way out of his troubles” which will in turn affirm “the conspicuous nobility” of whoever his “Alcestis” at the time may be (Bradley 116). “The intrinsic issue is whether anything of value can, or indeed ought, to be salvaged from an offering that has been fraudulently manipulated,” while alternating between the literal and the metaphorical (Nielsen 92). The mention of the “wrong women” in Peter’s past implies failures in selecting a wife who would agree to give him everything he wanted and then go through with it.

It will be remembered, a minor detail, that Peter married a woman he met on the boat going to India, whose fate has here been left out, and Clarissa’s exaggerated “horror of the moment” when she learned of this event is clear (MD 10). Would this woman, did she, give him everything he wanted? Has she died? Was she an earlier, perhaps unsuccessful, “Alcestis”? Is Peter in London to arrange Daisy’s divorce or his own or does he still have a wife? (MD 10). The omissions of information here and Clarissa’s curious horror are very suspicious. Ironic advice given to Alcestis’s husband Admetus has been that “you should court more wives so that more can die for you” a counsel Peter seems to have followed  (Euripides Alcestis ca. line 722). These matters remain unclear. Since Peter has asserted that Richard would metaphorically stifle Clarissa’s soul he speculates on the literal “death of her soul”; whether it is social or moral, he finds to his surprise that she is not dead (MD 89, 75). The Alcestis model seems not to have applied to her as Richard’s wife or that she was unqualified for the role Peter apparently expected; that is, he indulges in the bigotry of low expectations.  Still smarting over losing Clarissa to Richard he contends that “there’s nothing in the world so bad for some women as marriage”; a sort of business contract is indicated, with Clarissa, the perfect hostess, sitting “at the head of the table taking infinite pains with some old buffer who might be useful to Dalloway,” (MD 61, 119). “Such marriages are profitable to mankind … or to marry is not worth while”, lines suggesting that for some, marriage is rather like a mode of commerce, “a matter of human barter” (Euripides Alcestis ca. lines 627-628; Bradley 120; Nielsen 92). The narrative that Peter sustains defamiliarizes the traditional elements and constructs fragments of the Alcestis mythos in a negative fashion, which leaves Clarissa in jeopardy of death as in the normal course of things.

And so we come to the present, Clarissa’s party where among her guests are Peter Walsh, her childhood friend Sally Seton, and of course her husband Richard Dalloway. The guests have nothing to add on the subject of Alcestis until a scholarly Professor Brierly ironically suggests that one might require “some slight training in the classics in order to appreciate Milton”; again we are offered a bit of intra-textual instruction although the specifics have been omitted (MD 268). This comment is as suspicious as the daisy, coming out of an impromptu scholarly lecture at a party. On the other hand, taking him at his word means recalling Milton’s thematic Sonnet On His Deceased Wife (#23), “brought to [him] like Alcestis wrestled away from Death by Heracles.” This faint allusion seems not to resonate with Clarissa until it may do so “in rich ways with Clarissa’s character and her distress at learning of Septimus’s death” (Fernald:  “Review” 238). Otherwise, failed communication is integral to the novel’s rhetorical design (Bruss 167).

As the party continues, there are several matters of problematic references that are typical both of the failure to communicate and relevant to the Alcestis myth. There is the case of Sally Seton, Clarissa’s close friend in youth. The years have not been kind to Sally according to Clarissa, who suppresses her unkind thought: “For she hadn’t looked like that” (MD 260). Again, we find that there are several other matters in which words are used to conceal rather than reveal in the rhetoric of suppression. Peter thinks that, looking “like that”, her unstated, frankly full-figured appearance is a change due to motherhood without crediting Sally for her subtle influence upon the relationship between him and Clarissa. Again, these implications, repeatedly obscure, appear in Peter’s reference to Clarissa’s silly behavior,  “to marry like that,” using a phrase which will become significant (MD 289). “The stylistics of omission assume important thematic overtones” (McBride “At Four” 21). For example, Sally’s influence has been memorable as when she implored Peter “to carry off Clarissa to save her from the Hughs and Dalloways … who would stifle her soul … make a mere hostess of her, encourage her worldliness” (MD 114). Obviously Richard has not stifled her soul, and the contextual word “elope” never appears in the text although the meaning of Sally’s proposition, “carry off Clarissa,” is perfectly clear. The importance of this has gone without saying for most readers.

Sally introduces the subject of elopements, implied, if not made specific in so many words, underplayed until now. The flattered reader is required to supply meanings which have been omitted. Perhaps Peter would have gladly eloped with Clarissa, perhaps has even made the proposal himself, but in the scene at the fountain Clarissa said, ”It’s no use. It’s no use. This is the end.” (MD 97).  And now, Clarissa has pondered her current status, “this being Mrs. Dalloway, not even Clarissa any more” (MD 14). Such, it seems, is the catastrophe of marriage, a kind of death resulting in the loss of personal identity unlike Alcestis, renowned for her wifely heroism. Clarissa’s recent chat with Peter that morning reminds her of what her life might have been, and is not, if they had eloped, if she had “run away, lived with Peter” according to the suggestion of the wild, the daring, the romantic Sally Seton (MD 71).

While Clarissa meditates in the little room during the party, her friends discuss her at the same time. (This subtlety of structure appears sequentially at the level of narration but simultaneously at the level of story.) Both Peter and Sally have recalled Clarissa’s youthful Freudian slip in calling Richard Dalloway “Wickham”; the name of the obvious cad who eloped with the youngest and silliest Bennet daughter in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice; it casts a long shadow (MD 92, 285). Sally, unfortunately, had over-used the joke on Wickham, earning Clarissa’s displeasure: “We’ve had enough of that feeble joke” (MD 96).  And Richard famously identified himself, to Sally’s amusement, “My name is Dalloway,” not Wickham. “And the marriage had been, Sally supposed, a success? […[ And were they happy together” (MD 287, 293).

  Now, Peter, too, at last brings Clarissa’s marriage into question conversing with Sally while Clarissa, the perfect hostess, remains in the little room, wrestling with death, and more like Admetus than Alcestis “juggling the respective merits of hospitality versus bereavement” for the young man who killed himself, effectively but not actually, at her party (Nielsen 92). His actual death is, oddly, “an attempt to communicate” when ironically, her narrative itself has been a failure of communication (MD 280). Peter, still concerned with Clarissa’s marriage, insists, “But it had been a silly thing to do … to marry like that,” an unkind thing to say, a threat of slanders which Clarissa incurs when she leaves the two to themselves (MD 289). This brings yet another challenge to writerly comprehension.

Both Peter and Sally, talking behind her back, apparently share a knowledge of the circumstances of Clarissa’s marriage with which we have not been acquainted. Peter considers their unstated marriage mode, “like that,” as something silly, still more curious. Defensively, Sally, justifying herself, remembers she had referred to Richard as “Wickham” (but it was Clarissa who did so), causing her to “flare up”. The issue concerning Wickham requires an attentive reader. “Why not call Richard ‘Wickham’”? (MD 96, 285). Peter has described Clarissa as having ”a mixture of amusement and pride” (MD 119, emphasis added). Now Sally believes Peter comments on the subject “out of  pride,” that it was a silly thing to do, with diction that alludes to the Wickham of the Austen novel  (perhaps teasing Peter) (MD 289 emphasis added).

It seems they are happily married considering Richard’s extended epithalamic meditation (“hail, wedded bliss”) and his intention to say that he loved her, “Happiness is this”, composed as he walks  home at three that afternoon (MD 177-180).  True to the rhetoric of omission, however, he never manages to say he loves her “in so many words” (MD 175).  This contentment is surprising since Peter implies an unusual eventuality that he styles as “they married like that.” We are left to speculate as to what “marrying like that” might be and as a consequence of which they may be unhappy.  In the context of eloping, however, which is material to Wickham in Austen’s novel and Sally’s proposal that Peter elope with Clarissa, we can hardly be blamed for surmising that Clarissa Parry and Richard Dalloway, the “Wickham” of earlier days, must have eloped. A writerly perspective here is required.

Meanwhile, Clarissa has lived the life of a woman of unlimited expectations. Never for a moment is she tempted to express trivia in lofty terms. “With a mind of her own” she is seen as  “transparent in some ways, so inscrutable in others” (MD 116-117). She, too, responds to Sally’s rhetorical question, were they happy: “It was due to Richard; she had never been so happy,” even with twice his wits (MD 282, 116). Yet, feeling very like the young man who had killed himself whose death is “an attempt to communicate” she finds he has introduced matters of life and death and has made her feel the beauty of them both (MD 280).

After her session in the little room, suggestive of a journey to the Underworld, ”her dress flamed, her body burnt”, she renews her promise to her friends that she would return to them, and repeatedly  exclaims, she must go back (MD 275). Since her party has been an offering to life, “to combine, to create,” the phrase “Fear no more” is the mystical reassurance she receives for the shock which has followed the transparent pattern that the Alcestis originated when she must have perished. “She had escaped” (MD Hogarth edition 278). Explicitly she says that she felt, oddly, somehow very like him and glad that he had done it, “thrown it away [while they went on living” (MD Hogarth edition 280)]. The inscrutable young man, like Daisy, has given her everything she wants; that gift which allows her to “gradually revive” with Richard, living as Mrs. Dalloway when she might have “perished” living as Mrs. Walsh, is effectively recalled. This is the gift with which he had earlier endowed her in so many words: “I’ll give it you,” he had cried (MD 282, 226). Whoever the intended, Clarissa is the beneficiary. It was his gift. His embrace in death, a substitute for hers own, literally turns her life around.

This proximity to death elicits Clarissa’s gratitude. “No pleasure could equal, she thought, … [having] lost herself in the process of living to find it, with a shock of delight” (MD 282). This represents a change from the woman of the morning visit with Peter, clearly unsuited to being cast in the role of Alcestis merely for being a woman. Here Clarissa’s persona, apparently thematic of one calumniated by Peter and Sally, is instead one, like Admetus, whose little heroic encounter with mortality in the Underworld is resolved by the young man, Clarissa’s “Alcestis”, in order that she might renew her life. “But she must go back … . She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room,” now as mute as Alcestis (MD 284).  Peter remarks,    “It is Clarissa” coming through the door as when she first entered the story, one door with squeaking hinges opened by Mrs Dalloway; another, in memory, opened by the youthful Clarissa. Now, in effect, she comes back through the door as Clarissa to the beginning of the story, to have her life over again as the beneficiary of vicarious sacrifice. The paradox lies in the novel itself which describes a circular process.

The pattern of overall strategies that represent novelistic realism also masks typologies of plot and scene pertinent to the Alcestis fantasy with aspects of marriage troped as analogues to the concerns found in the Euripidean play. Allegory, necessarily, depends on the stylistics of omission in order to translate realism as fantasy. The covert allegory serves as “an imaginative analysis of contemporary reality which is … stated if not solved” (Fowler 6). In Alcestis, a coherent set of circumstances “signify a second order of correlated meanings” (Abrams 6). In the statement of allegory of the modern marriage as a catastrophe, Clarissa has found that being Mrs Dalloway, not even Clarissa anymore, may involve a kind of death or at least a concurrent loss of personal identity (MD 50). The trope of fantasy, of the skillfully braided Alcestis folktale, incorporates magic realism consisting of an ordered substrate extracted from the chaos of raw data.

If Chaucer, like Virginia Woolf, withdraws to the time of the Greeks or the Romans, it is only that his Alcestis leads him there. “The ‘timeless present’ which is an essential characteristic of literature means that the literature of the past can always be active in that of the present” (Curtius 15). But Chaucer with his daisy “has no desire to wrap himself round in antiquity” (Woolf CR 16). The marriage theme addressed in Euripides’s work is as evident in Pride and Prejudice or Mrs Dalloway as it is in Alcestis. “We know that though this world resembles, it is not in fact, our daily world…  Everything happens here more quickly and more intensely, and with better order than in life” (Woolf CR 18).

  “The enduring form of life which Virginia Woolf speaks of is not manifested on the printed page; it is a product of the interaction between text and reader” (Iser Act 168). “As the reader uses the various perspectives offered [him/her] by the text in order to relate the patterns, [of tropes, imagery and, lexicon], and the schematized views to one another, s/he sets the work in motion” (Iser Implied 275). But its words maintain “that enchantment which keeps them glittering in the mind long afterwards” (Woolf CR 18). “Think away the surface animation, the likeness to life, and there remains, to provide a deeper pleasure, an exquisite discrimination of human values” (Woolf CR 139). If Alcestis is revealed as a great culture hero, then it would seem that Clarissa had missed her chance of being heroic. On the other hand her affiliation with Jane Austen’s novel and the technique of the unwritten word illuminates the suppressed significance of her marriage and of “Wickham” in relation to the marriage theme in Mrs Dalloway. It almost escapes our notice after so much has been left out, a wider truth appears which absolutely must remain.

In conclusion, then, Peter and Clarissa both seek the same unique state of ontological nature in different ways. Clarissa’s style is to have her life over (MD 14). Peter’s is to preserve his; Clarissa’s self-sufficiency differs from Peter’s predatory style. The narrative is coy regarding this matter which is exposed only vaguely, but their opposite differences are clearly manifested as two incompatible ways of seeking and achieving a similar object, becoming immortal – almost ageless, eternal. They pursue the same concerns, however, by way of parallel paths which can never ever meet. Only through all that is being deleted, as Margaret McBride has aptly stated, does one  begin to understand all that the story encompasses.

                                                                                                                                                       Molly Hoff


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