Mortality and Its Discontents in Mrs Dalloway
All men have
to pay the debt of death, and there is not a mortal who knows whether he is going to be alive on the
Alcestis line 774
Some very astute scholar of the
works of Virginia Woolf has observed that her essays are notoriously a
smorgasbord of clues to her fiction. This truth is never more relevant than
when it concerns the novel Mrs Dalloway
and the topic of vicarious sacrifice where some casual comment seemingly
irrelevant and apparently apropos of nothing is suddenly contextualized. It is
the context of vicarious sacrifice as related to Septimus Smith and his death
that must be determined.
Woolf’s Common Reader, a temporal twin to Mrs Dalloway in which death provides “the basic cause and condition
of all action” (Bradley 114), introduces such fruitful contexts as to demand
careful scrutiny. The essays on Greek literature, or Jane Austen, or the
Brontes. and even the “Patron and the Crocus” offer openings for serious
critical approaches. Her words on Chaucer likewise give us pause. Less obvious,
however, is the chapter entitled “Outlines,” largely about Miss Mitford who is
material to the career of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel,
until one non sequitur stands out in
sharp relief: “Our brilliant young men might do worse […] than devote a year or
two to […] the daisy in Chaucer” (Woolf CR
The daisy in Chaucer, like
Clarissa Dalloway who is said to have “none of that sense of moral virtue which
is so repulsive in good women” appears in the Prologue to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (MD 118). Chaucer’s daisy offers an outline for
study, the title of the essay in which it appears. This daisy, Alcestis
“clothed al in grene,” is a powerful constituent of an extended context for the
relationships between pairs of characters including Peter Walsh and his latest
amorous affiliation who, we recall, bears the suspiciously unimaginative name
of Daisy (See Prologue 241, 341).
In Chaucer’s Legend, Love asks:
Hastow nat in a book, lyth in thy cheste,
The grete goodnesse of the queen Alceste,
That turned was into a dayesye
She that for hire housbande chees to dye,
And eke to goon to helle, rather than he,
And Ercules rescowed hire, parde,
And brought hir out of helle agayen to blys?
Legend Prologue lines 509-516
This much of the legend is true
as far as it goes. The traditional folktale revolves around the issue of the
hospitality of King Admetus of Thessaly and his wife Alcestis . The king is
doomed to die, a fate very much at odds with his preferences, unless he can
find someone willing to die in his place. Immunity from death (athanatos) belongs only to the gods. The
human modality is the state of mortality, the condition that he and the other
characters as well are seriously unwilling to accept. The fantasy to be
realized is “to overcome the greatest Necessity of our mortal nature, death
itself” (Segal 38). Admetus’s
indignant parents have refused to serve him as surrogate but his faithful
Alcestis, best of wives, volunteers to die in his place
After she has been buried Admetus, a famous host, is visited by
Hercules, rather a party animal, not knowing that the house is in mourning,
saying that all must die.
The hospitable king is “beset with the powerful obligation on the one
hand to mourne the dead wife, and on the other to entertain the visiting guest”
(Beye 127). Hercules’s faux pas is
suggested by Mrs. Hilbery’s ironic comment, “how it is certain we must die” (Alcestis line 783; MD 267). Hercules proceeds to disgrace himself with inappropriate
comments and “beery philosophizing” (Bradley 121) out of place in a house in
mourning, even in one renowned for hospitality; such behavior is typical of the
famous strong man, part human, part divine. His philosophical rhetoric opposes
a lusty worship of Aphrodite (he is an advocate of life and love) to
Admetus’s “necrophilic longings” –
singing “we all gotta die” (Bradley 122; Arrowsmith 73-74). Hercules, whose
Labors are famous, is an oaf playing “Falstaff” to Admetus’s “Prince Hal.” His
muscular reputation derives from his famous Labors, the precedent in which he
managed to rescue Theseus from Hades and to steal the dog at the same time (his
The guest-host relationship which exists between Hercules and Admetus
is “a sacred trust and reciprocal hospitality was expected” (Rehm 94). The hero is offended that Admetus has
coyly hidden the truth from him, his famous guest. Yet when he finds that the
king has deceived him by extending to him his famous hospitality even when he
is in mourning for his illustrious wife, Heracles as deus ex machina
immediately fetches her back from the dead, being familiar with the
labyrinthine route, as master athlete, by wrestling with Death; he then
performs a symbolic nuptial rite. The royal couple lives happily ever after. It
is the gift of a second life for both Admetus and Alcestis (Bradley 113).
The daisy in Chaucer, for
the informed reader, supplies the allegorical emblem, the theme of vicarious
sacrifice which is the subject of the novel. The novel offers features relevant
to the motif of Alcestis thereby establishing the coherence of the text. This
redundancy contributes to the résumé “although continually varying its way of
doing so” (Dällenbach 49). Mrs Dalloway
is often a miniature of some aspect of the Alcestis motif. Others, too, like
Alcestis, have been brought back from death. It is a common motif.
Euripides, who had died in 407 bc,
is a frequent target of comedy in Aristophanes, most notably in Frogs (405 bc) in which Dionysus disguised as Hercules is dispatched to
the underworld to restore life to his favorite dramatist, Euripides. After an
extensive wrestling match of poetry with Aeschylus, whose lines are finally
deemed the weightiest, the older poet wins the contest. Euripides remains in
the Underworld and Aeschylus is brought back to life like Alcestis. (Euripides
appears as a character in Aristophanes’s comedies Frogs, Acharnians and Thesmophoriazusae.) Parodies of identifiable passages are
amusing as “Aeschylus, Euripides, Dionysus and the chorus practice “literary
criticism”; their author, through them, criticizes criticism” (Dover 34 and
note 68). In Aristophanes’s masterpiece,
Frogs, he is clearly spoofing Alcestis.
The remarkable generosity the
queen Alcestis manifests in dying for her husband is debated in Plato’s Symposium; “The heroism of
self-sacrificing maidens functions as a model for what is required of the
city’s ephebes” (O’Higgins 83 note
14). Phaedrus naturally claims that Alcestis died for love (Symposium 179 c-e). Diotima, on the
other hand, asserts that her motive was for enduring fame (208 d). “Positive
actions by women in Greek literature (whether virgins or wives like Alcestis)
typically involve such sacrifice and self-control” (Foley 107). The story of
Alcestis, nevertheless, “seems to be a considerable gain in the face of
long-standing literary misogyny – a misogyny of which Euripides was aware”
(O’Higgins 82). In either case the price of this valiant woman is truly above
rubies (Proverbs 31; O’Higgins 77).
The motif of Alcestis’s heroic vicarious sacrifice here is the
subject of many subsequent works including T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, Robert Browning’s Balaustion’s Adventure, Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White, Shakespeare’s Winter’s
Tale, and The Earthly Paradise of
William Morris to name only a few; and in a another context Alcestis can even
be viewed as a “Christ figure” although no one does so. A wall painting in the
4th century Christian catacomb on the Via Latina pictures Alcestis, Heracles
and Cerberus, however. Just as
Alcestis is Admetus’s surrogate, Septimus Smith is almost universally regarded
as Clarissa’s surrogate in Mrs Dalloway.
Some have seen Septimus also as a Christ figure, if the reader is sufficiently
selective and insufficiently schooled, rather than recognize him as an Alcestis
figure (See Kopley 116-120).
If, as Professor Brierly suggests, we acquire “some slight training
in the classics in order to appreciate Milton” (MD 268) and if we recall Milton’s sonnet On His Deceased Wife, “Brought to [him] like Alcestis”, wrestled
away from death by Hercules, the explicit structure of Euripides’s Alcestis might serve to supplant “the
vagueness […] of Christianity and its consolations”(Woolf “On Not Knowing Greek” CR
To over-sanctify Septimus Smith is to ignore the dramatic value of
the theme of vicarious sacrifice. Whether he is seen as saint or psychopath,
the full function of his life and death is distorted by a generally strong
sympathy for him as a war victim and a tactful indifference to Clarissa
Dalloway as a socialite. “Suppression of the truth is one of the trademarks of
[Alcestis]” (Nielson 94); in Mrs Dalloway suppression of the truth is
the mystery. Recognition of literary allusion supplies a measure of dramatic
irony denied for those who only discern a quotidian quality in the June day of
the narrative. Recognition of the likeness of magical realism which
incorporates fantasy beside realism is to be expected.
The Alcestis motif, dramatized
by Euripides in his play (438 bc)
of the same name, spans the entire cast of characters in Mrs Dalloway. Each of the characters exposes a fragment of the Alcestis
motif like a mirror reflecting the subject of the narrative itself (See Dällenbach
10-15). With the situation of death denied or death accepted distributed among
the diverse characters, Alcestis
appears in various fractals of itself and for various reasons. Yet its
continuous parallels remain the most obscure gesture of ancient literature Mrs Dalloway possesses. The Alcestis
motif, even the daisy in Chaucer, subtly involves pairs of characters and the
relationships they share in advancing the plot. “The underlying condition of
[Euripides’s] theatrical fiction[s] is the substitution of art, myth, or
fantasy for the inexorable reality or Necessity of death” (Segal 39). The
fairytale Euripides dramatizes concludes with his usual formulaic coda: “That which
was expected has not been accomplished; but that which was unexpected has God
found the way. Such was the end of this story” (Trans. Moses Hadas and John
MacLean). This applies to Mrs Dalloway
Peter’s Daisy, the love
interest in India, preoccupies him throughout the day. First, he confesses to
Clarissa that he is in love with a married woman in India for whom it seems he
is to arrange a divorce. In view of the fact that Peter was married on his
passage to India, however, it is not clear who might be divorcing whom.
Admetus’s father’s refusal to die like Alcestis bears an ominous ring in this
respect, advising his son, “Court many women so that more may die for you”
(line 720; trans Hadas). Peter’s “troubles of the flesh” are reminiscent of Admetus’s
having found “some way out of his troubles” (Bradley 116; Alcestis line 221; MD
77). Clarissa reacts histrionically with a comment that appears later on the
lips of others: “Thank heaven she had refused to marry him!” (MD 64-69). Although Clarissa admits she
has missed the gaiety she might have had as his wife, Peter seems to rue this
as one of his several failures: “Clarissa refused me, he thought. He stood
there thinking, Clarissa refused me.” (MD
74). “[Alcestis’s} actual death corresponds to the metaphorical de-vitalization
undergone by all women in marriage” (O’Higgins 90). Clarissa and Sally Seton
“spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe” (MD 50).
Considering that his pension
would not support him and Daisy both “if he married [her]” he contemplates
asking Richard Dalloway (whom he says is “a bit thick in the head”) to help him
find a position even though he soon admits memory of Daisy is becoming dim and
that his marital plans were not for the purpose of marrying her “but to prevent
her from marrying anybody else” (MD
112, 120-121). And yet he has claimed to be in love. Peter is beginning to look
like a cad. The truth emerges in Peter’s hotel room where he considers that his
plans, all plain sailing, would achieve fruition, that Daisy “would give him
everything! […] every thing he wanted!” (MD
238). This is either exaggerated noblesse
oblige or Daisy has no understanding of the consequences for herself. We
must take into account the woman Peter married on the boat who seems to have
dropped out of sight. Was she as generous as Daisy/Alcestis? He remembers that
Clarissa “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)” (MD 236). Clarissa is clearly no Daisy.
If we continue to see Daisy as
Chaucer’s Alcestis and if we accept Peter her husband in the role of Admetus,
then Daisy would clearly “be a widow with a past” (MD 239) if she refused to give him everything he wanted and if like
Clarissa she holds back the one thing, that is if she refused to die for him.
Alcestis herself “imagines the marriage offers she could have attracted as
Admetus’s widow if she had allowed her husband to die” (Rehm 86). More
ominously Peter adds, “He didn’t mean to die yet,” in which case he suggests
that Daisy is predetermined in his purview, and he like Miss Kilman and Admetus
would ultimately learn that knowledge comes through suffering – mathein/pathein (MD 196), the familiar sententia of Greek tragedies. And what of the
woman on the boat?
Peter’s reputation is familiar even to Lady Bruton: “In trouble with
some woman […] They had all guessed that that
was at the bottom of it “ (MD 163), a
sentiment Clarissa soon echoes: “always in love with the wrong woman” (MD 184). We recall Clarissa’s reaction
when he reveals his amorous plans. “She flattered him; she fooled him […] What
a waste! What a folly! All his
life he had been fooled like that” (MD
68). These exclamations are more than mere histrionics. “But look at the women
he loved – vulgar, trivial, commonplace,” and perhaps unreliable (MD 192). She knows that “with Peter
everything had to be shared” (MD 10)
including one’s life.
The Daisy/Peter relationship in
terms of Alcestis contains a smaller version of the entire novel as it pertains
to Clarissa and Septimus Smith. The allusion functions as a structural device
that brings out the meaning of the work, in this case it is the motif enclosed
within the novel “that shows a similarity with the work that contains it.” It
serves as an internal mirror among many mirrors and looking glasses in the
novel, a reflexion which invites the reader to see what is hidden from direct
apprehension. The Alcestis motif, “the whole of the text that gives meaning to
its segments” presupposes a knowledge of the text and “enacts the analogy by
providing the analogue” (Dällenbach 8-9, 44, 50). Alcestis appears in the form of a series of lenses which as a
narrative device reveals the otherwise ambiguous status of all the characters.
The applications are constantly broken up, tangled and contracted.
Reflexivity is signalled by
repetition of evocative settings such as the meetings in Clarissa’s chamber
with Peter and Richard (MD 59 and
178). Each begins as an unexpected intrusion with the door handle slipping and
“in came” Peter or Richard in whichever case applies. Richard’s visitation
continues as a rehearsal of Peter’s and as a summary of the high points of
Clarissa’s day already told up to that point. Each even concludes with a
reference to Clarissa’s party which Peter is asked to remember and Richard has
clearly forgotten (MD 72, 179). Of
further significance is the homonymy between the two characters, Peter and
“Dick” (Richard), the transtextual husband so named in The Voyage Out. Each name is a slang term for the male member. “The
text repeats its subject, although continually varying its way of doing so”
Mirrors in various places
emphasize the reflexivity in Mrs Dalloway. Clearly the visit made by Richard is
a mirror imitation of Peter’s visit. Just as Alcestis in her private chamber
prepares her own funeral toilette, Clarissa’s looking glass and her dressing
table is a toilette scene that will repeat in Peter’s hotel room, “one
looking-glass” (Bradley 115; MD 54,
235). Even Lucy executes an imitation of Clarissa who herself is good at
imitations (MD 57, 88-89). Rezia
Warren Smith goes to her mirror and puts on her hat whereas Clarissa removes
her hat before going to the mirror; she and Septimus both block on the name
“Peter” (MD 59, 214). Other
mirror-gazers include Miss Kilman and Dr. Holmes (MD 202 and 138). These internal mirrors and repeated duplication
reveal the law underlying the narrative.
Chaucer’s Alcestis, “clothed al
in grene” is ambiguously reminiscent of Clarissa. We recall her green dress
which she is mending when Peter arrives: “By artificial light the green shone,
but lost its colour now in the sun” (MD
55). He ascertains that she is apparently happily married to Richard Dalloway:
“Are you happy Clarissa? Does Richard –“ (MD
71). Peter repeatedly refers to Clarissa as being “too cold,” her coldness even
approaching the coldness of an icicle, “a little rigid in fact” (MD 64, 91, 121-122, 116). All of which
suggests that he is pondering Richard as the sorrowing Admetus, (whom Clarissa
has failed “again and again” MD 46)
who plans to assuage his grief by making “a crafted replica of his wife” an
“effigy he will embrace, caress […] hold in his arms” (O’Higgins 78, 85, 87;
Rehm 87). He expects to sleep with this “chill delight” (such as the “statue”
which “must be […] must be set down between them”, a cold comfort after
Alcestis has departed (MD 67). Even
Peter might take “comfort in [Clarissa’s] image sculpted in stone” (Rehm 87).
With the sound of the clocks and the final stroke that tolls for
death he realizes, “She is not dead,” which seems a strange assumption unless
he is thinking of her potential in a green dress like Alcestis and Richard as
Admetus (MD 75). Later we learn that
Sally Seton implored him to carry off Clarissa, to elope with her “to save her
from the Hughs and Dalloways and all the other ‘perfect gentlemen’ who would
‘stifle her soul’ […] to make a mere hostess of her.” (MD 114). That she has none of that sense of moral virtue in good
women seems to disqualify her as an Alcestis figure for the time being (MD 118).
“The perfect hostess he called
her […] she had the makings of the perfect hostess” (MD 9-10, 93). Paradoxically, this characteristic puts her in the
category of Admetus, famous host of Thessaly, rather than Alcestis. Clarissa’s
incessant parties, entertaining Richard’s colleagues, lunching and dining
characterizing the frivolous party life of a trophy wife (MD 118-119). Admetus’s father similarly hints that “if marriages
were not profitable, there would be no point in marrying” (Beye 119).
Furthermore Peter is aware of Clarissa’s horror of death, “that divine vitality
which [she] loved” (MD 9), and her
transcendental theory that “the unseen part might survive, be recovered
somehow” (MD 12, 231-232). “What she
liked was simply life” (MD 183).
Admetus, like Clarissa, displays the hubris of a spoiled child (Arrowsmith 17),
a state acknowledged by Clarissa herself: “And people would say, ‘Clarissa is
spoilt’” (MD 182). Her parties are
“an offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift” (MD 185).
The sacrifice of Alcestis is a
“mode of commerce” on behalf of her husband, “ a matter of barter” (Bradley
120, Nielson 95) to Admetus who, like Clarissa, senses “how unbelievable death
was” (MD 185). His hospitality as a
husband/host has earned him his escape from death. Clarissa, entering her
figurative vault of assets, meditates on her obligation to “pay back from this
secret deposit of exquisite moments” in her life those features which enable her
to feel “blessed and purified” as if life were an account book; life is the
bottom line (MD 42-43). Clarissa’s hospitality is inclusive: ”So-and-so in
South Kensington, some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say in Mayfair”
(MD 184-185). The guest list is
clearly upscale. Her parties are a commercial arrangement with life (MD 184). Yet, considering her aspiration,
having her life over again, she must face facts; as Salman Rushdie famously
stated, to be born again, first you must die.
Alcestis is portrayed
addressing her marriage bed, a hyperdramatic scene filled with emotion as she
bids farewell to her marriage couch asking only that Admetus not remarry (Alcestis lines 152ff). Like Clarissa she
is beyond the age of childbearing (Beye 123). Clarissa, too, regards her
“narrow bed”, the love nest, although she already sleeps apart from her husband
(MD 46) ostensibly to rest
undisturbed when he returns late at night from the House.
Doris Kilman who bears the
aptronym of death (obviously people wouldn’t invite her to parties – MD 200) expresses an acrimonious desire
to “unmask her,” to “bring
Clarissa to her knees; […] make feel her mastery” (MD 189). The figurative presence of a mask suggests the distinctive
masks worn by Greek actors with pained or leering expressions whichever the
role required. The two have become symbolic of the theater, whereas the actor,
one who is playing a role, is technically termed in Greek a “hypocrit”. Miss Kilman seems to
insinuate that Clarissa is hypocritical in addition to being like a spoiled
child. The mask itself further enhances the theatrical context of Euripides.
Kilman’s political position however undermines validity in her
opinions; her “overmastering desire” is consonant with her German sympathies,
mastery being a virtue much admired by Sir William Bradshaw among others who
share her views. She had lost her position after the war “because she would not
pretend that the Germans were all villains” and is still incongruously among
many “people who did not think the English invariably right” (MD 187, 197). These words paraphrase
lines from The Acharnians, a Greek comedy by Aristophanes (425 bc) which is a burlesque of Euripides
and in which he appears as a character:
Yet I know that these our foemen, who our bitter wrath excite
Were not always wrong entirely, nor ourselves entirely right.
(Trans. Rogers, line 400-1)
By virtue of the shared allegiances, Miss Kilman is clearly a
“villain” of the same stripe as Sir William Bradshaw in his relationship with
Septimus Warren Smith.
Having lost confidence in Dr.
Holmes the Smiths turn to Sir William Bradshaw whose plans for
institutionalizing Septimus, his defects not limited to his suicidal tendencies
present from the beginning, derive from Bradshaw’s concern for the “good of
society.” “Unsocial impulses” bred by “the lack of good blood” are to be
treated by incarcerating the patient: “He shut people up” (MD 154). Inspired by these theories of social Darwinism, eugenics,
and racial hygiene, Bradshaw’s “curious exercise of the arms which he shot out”
(much like a fascist salute) and his pride in self-mastery, his own virtue (sophrosune = mastery) betray leanings in
the political direction of the Master Race then ascendant in Germany in the
1920s; even the King and Queen have recently returned from knighting the
fascist Premier of Italy, Benito Mussolini, June 11, 1923 (MD 153; Bradley 115). These sympathies had become current in
England. The Smiths as victims helplessly await the inevitable separation. “It
was a question of law” (MD 145).
The reputation of Admetus, whose name is cognate with terms
signifying that he is “unmastered,” characterizes him as a famous host
introduced in the beginning of the play in a series of mythical parallels.
Asklepios raised the dead. Therefore Zeus killed Asklepios with lightning.
Apollo killed the Cyclops who forged the lightning, whereupon Zeus sentenced
Apollo as a slave to Admetus whose hospitable kindness as a slave master was
rewarded by a reprieve – he would not die if a substitute could be found.
Euripides reveals this in the prologue and hence the plot, a traditional tale
familiar to the Greek audience sitting in the sun, is no secret; although the
ambiguities in Mrs Dalloway obscure
the heroic role to be played out in the novel, Alcestis is to be the hero of
the story that Euripides presents. While “examining the way in which two people
bear up under a given situation […] the myth is accepted as a reality and the
circumstances force decisions and reactions upon the characters” (Beye 113).
Death takes issue with this generous offer the god has made saying Apollo
cannot have everything his own way to which Clarissa scoffs: “Those ruffians,
the Gods, shan’t have it all their own way” (MD 117).
With Clarissa in survival mode (“if she could have had her life over
again” – MD 14), famous for her
status as perfect hostess like Admetus, famous for his typically Greek
hospitality, it seems she will need an “Alcestis,” someone willing to die in
her place. The critical consensus is that the surrogate is Septimus Smith. In
fact, the world of 1923 is populated with survivors of the Great War. This was
the Alcestis myth writ large by people who had succeeded in finding someone
else to do their dying for them. Even Septimus who “went to France to save an
England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel
Pole [like Alcestis] in a green dress” has been in a relationship with his tent
companion Evans (who died in the war), a possible allusion to the prevailing
theme of vicarious sacrifice. Has Evans played his Alcestis and he Admetus?
Now, mad and actively hallucinating Septimus sings his ode to Time which Evans,
perhaps a structural Alcestis, answers “from behind the tree. The dead were in
Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids” (MD
105). Even his irrationality relates to the traditional home of Alcestis the
very place where gods can be servants to mortals and heroes wrestle with
death. It seems that Evans, like
the Greek heroine, has now come back.
With Septimus married to
Rezia, (Lucrezia), it would seem that she is to die by her own hand like the
legendary “good woman” of Chaucer’s poem subsequent to her being raped (Legend of Lucrece 1680-1885). Similarly, Northrop Frye proposes the
“calumniated woman” archetype for Alcestis first “violated by Death and then
[…] vindicated by being restored to life (Frye 219). The rapist of Lucrece,
Tarquin, admiring “hir beautee and hir chere, Hir yellow heer, hir shap,” (Legend 1746-1747) anticipates the lusty
appraisal offered by Dr. Holmes, “that charming little lady […] quite a girl, a
foreigner, wasn’t she” and compliments such as her “very pretty comb” (MD 138-139). On several occasions
Admetus refers to his dead wife as an “outsider,” and a “foreigner” (Rehm 92).
Admetus, unwilling to admit he is currently bereaved and widowed as well, is
reluctant to turn away his famous guest, Hercules; his equivocation refers to
the dead woman as an outsider, a foreigner to be disregarded (Alcestis lines 810-828). Similarly,
Sally Seton who seems capable of saying anything possesses that quality “much
commoner in foreigners” (MD 48).
However, it is Rezia who says, “For she could say anything to him
now. She could say whatever came into her head” (MD 221). John Gower, in the Confessio
Amantis which influenced Chaucer, gives another version of the Alcestis
myth in “Liber Septimus”:
Whan that the duk Ametus lay
Sek in his bedd, that every day
Men writen whan he scholde deie
Alceste his wif goth for to
That if sche wolde for his sake
The maladie soffre and take
And deie hirself, he scholde
In bothe hire armes and him
And spake unto him what hire
Legend of Alcestis 7:1915-1940
It does appear that Rezia, not Septimus, is cast in the role of
Alcestis, even to speaking words similar to Peter’s Daisy: “Anything, anything
in the whole world, any little bother with her work, anything that struck her
to say she would tell him” (MD 222).
Although she is willing to sacrifice herself, the heroic Alcestis expresses her
natural unwillingness to be separated from her husband (Alcestis line 287), as Rezia iterates, “Nothing could separate
them” (MD 225). Their separation is
inevitable. In the section immediately prior to Septimus’s death scene,
Elizabeth Dalloway anticipates the macabre yet relatively peaceful death of
Alcestis, “had some woman breathed her last [… and] just brought off that act
of supreme dignity” (MD 209). This
like the suicide of Septimus occurs fully onstage unlike death scenes in Greek
tragedy that are usually announced by a messenger. His suicide is placed
slightly off center in the novel, at the golden section (Divine Proportion)
that is said to be a Cubist technique that reveals the artificiality of a
painting, not its realism (Dällenbach 70).
Simply stated, Septimus did not want to die. For him the Alcestis
role is clearly distasteful. Having asserted that those who are about to die
are alone he is in company with Admetus who is telling Hercules that those who
are about to die might as well be dead (O’Higgins 83). Yet seeing himself, not
Rezia, threatened by the approach of Dr. Holmes, mortality in the form of
“human nature”, not Bradshaw, he upstages Rezia as if he were the likely victim
trapped between nature and the law. “Those aspects of the world and society
which are such by nature cannot be
altered; man can only accommodate himself to them and make the best of them,”
[…] sometimes “treating aspects of his life which are in fact determined by
convention as if they were determined by nature” (Hadas xii). Septimus is
presented in the very act of dying, a scene that is both “shocking and
offending” which conforms with Euripides’s achievement (Beye 117 note 13). He
makes his conventional offering to an unknown being saying “I’ll give it [to}
you!” and he leaves his bed long enough to end his life. The ambulance which
Peter encounters carrying Septimus to the morgue resembles the command that
Lucrece’s people “cary hir on a bere thurgh al the toun,” The funeral
procession carrying the dead body of Lucrece who had stabbed herself has become
a wedding procession turned uoside down, a “journey common to both weddings and
funerals,” thus combining wedding
and funeral motifs ((Chaucer Lucrece 1866-1867; Rehm 84, 88). A catastrophe
Lady Bradshaw serves as the messenger for the suicide that is
offstage from Clarissa’s point of view. The ephebe,
“a young man […] had killed himself. He had been in the army.” Her husband
reports that it was something “about the deferred effects of shell shock” (MD 279). “Here’s death.” The effect upon
Clarissa reverses the Alcestis situation, in the middle of her party where
guests are in revelry like Hercules. Death is the guest of an “Admetus” that is
not welcome. Once again the situation is shaped as hospitality versus
bereavement. She must resolve her situation conflicting between “private pain
and social duty” (O’Higgins 81). A party scene, a figure of vitality, changes
to one of mourning with Clarissa’s isolation in the little room, yet itself a
Septimus, like Alcestis, truly dies twice – once in actuality and a
second time by report (Rehm 86). “He had thrown himself from a window […] through
him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes […] so she saw it” (MD 280). In the little room Clarissa’s
persona again vacillates between Alcestis and Admetus, the valiant woman and
her cowardly husband, just as her comments alternate between hyperbole and
understatement. As Admetus, the figure of hospitality, she resents the
interruption, the inopportune arrival of death; “the party’s splendour fell to
the floor.” As a potential victim of those “who would stifle her soul” like
Alcestis, his sufferings instead, (“the suffocation of blackness”) take the
place of her own. (MD 114, 280).
Reminiscent of Othello’s anticipation of the consummation of his marriage, a
conventional makarismos (“if it were
now to die ‘twere now to be most happy”) marital bliss is reflected as “an
embrace in death”, “she had never been so happy (makar)” (MD 51, 281, 282).
Alcestis is a blessed spirit (O”Higgins 85; Rehm 89). Whereas before, “holding
her life in her arms,” there is now a sympathetic fear, terror associated with
an incapacity to walk serenely holding life in one’s hands (MD 63, 281). Living has been obscured
and defaced by nonessentials leaving one alone like one who is about to die (MD 280-281).
Sir William Bradshaw, the
bearer of bad news, justly gets the blame for the event, causing both the
collapse of the festivities, a social disaster (aischros – Alcestis line
542) and the death, as an outrage (aischros
–Alcestis line 955), like a forcible
rape of the soul. “It was her disgrace” (MD
282) as hostess (Admetus) and victim (Alcestis). “She felt somehow very like
him.” Oddly, Clarissa felt glad that he had done it, an expression of epichairekakia, sometimes associated
with Schadenfreude (spite). (Please refer to Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics 1107a1.) It is, however, a compound word, a
matter of being either maliciously or justly pleased, with pity or envy, for
the misfortune of another. “She did not pity him”; thus she envied him, an envy
she has previously avowed. Similarly, Sally Seton possesses qualities that,
“since [Clarissa] hadn’t got it herself, she always envied” (MD 48). Repentant for living at
another’s expense, a soldier’s (Nielsen 92). Clarissa, thus, has experienced a
vicarious death, socially, symbolically, and mystically. To be born again, to
have one’s life over again, one must first die if redemption is at hand. Enter
Hercules rehearses his career
of accomplishments, the famous Twelve Labors, and those yet to be undertaken,
capturing the man-eating mares of Diomedes (Alcestis
lines 489, 504). Mrs. Dalloway refers
to various other Labors that constitute an isotopy, a repetition of features
relevant to the identification of the famous hero (Prince 47). Some slight
training in the classics may be required. Clarissa claims that she would have
perished without Richard, who, like the heroic wrestler “always kept himself in
the pink of condition” (MD 164) and
who facilitates her gradual revival (MD
282). Richard’s commentary on his life that “had been a miracle” suggests the
seemingly impossible Labors of Hercules (MD
174-175). Some comments, passing for gossip and even crass evaluations, compose
a context relative to Hercules
Being a bit thick in the head, as Peter says, is typical of Hercules
whose antics are a “stock piece of comedy”, “part of his adorable, divine
simplicity” ((Beye 116 note 13; MD
182). That Richard was almost driven mad by Hugh is reminiscent of Seneca’s Hercules Furens modeled on that of
Euripides (MD 8). When Sally Seton
says, “Literally, when he came into the room he smelt of the stables” we should
take it literally as a reference to the sixth Labor, the cleansing of the
Augean stables which had not been cleaned for thirty years. Clarissa’s subtly
erotic reference, that “nothing could be slow enough; nothing last too long” concerns
the conception of Hercules when Zeus, in love with Alcmena, made the night last
three times as long to enjoy the adulterous occasion, a comedy of errors set
forth in Amphitryo by Plautus (MD 282),. Richard’s trek homeward finds
him at crossings much as the fame of Hercules at the Crossroads according to
Prodicus, choosing between “the arduous ‘road’ of moral action as opposed to a
life of pleasure and ease” (Arrowsmith 108).
Clarissa’s awareness of the
proximate occasion of death introduces a point at which she may save or lose
her soul, die as Admetus or revive as Alcestis. There is an embrace in death
and in rebirth as well. That morning she had asked herself, “What was she
trying to recover? What image of white dawn”, rhetorical questions leading to
the passage from Cymbeline, “Fear no
more the heat of the sun.” Now, the dawn sky, not dusky but ashen pale, is new
as if just recovered, “and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the
sun” (MD 12, 283). Alcestis, too
comments on the sun that she will never see again, and ”heavenly eddies of
fleeting clouds“ (Alcestis 204 and
244). “And she came in from the little room” (MD 284).
This is an event that has previously occurred. Peter has often seen her when “she came into a
room; she stood […] in a doorway with lots of people around her” (MD 114-115). When he says, “there she
was, however; there she was, ” it becomes evident that the occasion is
frequent, recurring, and coming through a door is one that even opens the
narrative with a little squeak of the hinges. Now, having three times felt a
compulsion to go back, she comes through the door, mute like Alcestis. The
story recycles, and Clarissa thereby has her life over again, and again.
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