Reading Virginia Woolf's novel





                         It is a serious matter

                         To bring someone back from the dead.

                                      T. S. Eliot “The Cocktail Party”


The narrative in Mrs Dalloway takes Aristotle’s Poetics quite literally, since the Philosopher declares that the poet is an imitator, like a painter or any other image maker (Aristotle Poetics 60a1-60b1). The borrowed robes of preformed language lend a merely fashionable formal dress to the rhetoric of imitation; yet when pilfered words resemble dead souls who “from their graves rise up and walk like sprites” they often contribute to the legibility of the text (Macbeth 2.2.79). “Dazzling leaps of metaphorical construction” advance the meanings borne by such imitations of dead poets (Kellman 30). The problems encountered in managing the “imitations” found in the novel’s intertextual overload are aspects of the ritual ordeal of apprehending symbolic communication to which its initiates as solitary travelers must submit.

Preformed language, both assuming and producing the competence of the reader, expects “familiarity with multiple texts”  amassed from a kind of synchronic mystical body of literature, T. S. Eliot’s “historical sense”; it assumes that all literature has a “simultaneous existence”  (Conte 29-30; Eliot Sacred Wood 49). Preformed language drawn from that body is unreadable as “allusion” without familiarity with that literary fund of knowledge where language is a medium of exchange; its worth must be recognized and retained in memory. The counterfeit, the imitation, always hesitating on the edge of caricature, must derive its permanent value from the literary immortals, “reborn in the single text in which it is realized”; appropriated preformed language “receives vitality from the poetic word that is the guarantor of its new poetic existence” (Eliot 93; Conte 69). In a moment of self-reference to the intertextual overload, it seems that Mrs Dalloway has self-consciously abolished private property, foregrounding itself as appropriating words in spite of the received mode of self expression (MD 49).

Caroline Webb perceives Clarissa as “a character who has half-consciously produced a reading of herself as one dead” (Webb 281). Raising her from the dead depends on recognizing her willingness to explore her present at the same time as her past life just as modern literature raising the ancients from the dead in the form of allusions from Classical literature claims a simultaneous existence with authors of the past. This serves to emphasize the religious aspect of Mrs Dalloway, which is truly religious in inspiration. The religious aspect encompasses the symbolic ritual of death and resurrection integral to the structure of comedy and essential to Clarissa Dalloway’s personal lust for life.

Structurally speaking, comedy is an initiation ritual, an act of symbolic communication with a grief at the center (Frye 105). Without renewal and rebirth, the ritual goal, there is no justification for the joyous celebration at the end. The death and rebirth of the hero, his return, composes a ritual pattern that is approached in Greek comedy, “directing the reader’s attention towards certain features which the writer wishes to stress” (Hutchinson 74). Typical is the comedy Frogs of Aristophanes, with its many literary allusions, in which the object is to recover a dead poet, whether Euripides or Aeschylus (valorized according to their relative weight) both having recently arrived in the Underworld. The emphasis as in Mrs Dalloway, however, is not upon death but rather on life, and as in the case of Clarissa, “of course she enjoyed life immensely,” her redundant theme (MD 118).

Her enjoyment as a usufruct of life is expressed in her regrets concerning the uncertainty of her tenure, “that she must inevitably cease completely … all this must go on without her,” as if she had heard the mermaids singing (MD 12). Uncle William’s pronouncement, when he turned on his bed and said “I have had enough,” implies several famous literary metaphors on death, Cicero for instance, who says, “When a man has had enough of life it is time to die” (Cicero De senectute 20.72; 23.85. Similarly, the counsel Lucretius offers is to “depart from the table full fed with life” (Lucretius De rerum natura 3.940). Clarissa embodies the words of Horace who observes, “We rarely find anyone ready to leave life like a guest after a good dinner” (Horace Satires 1.1). Unlike Uncle William, a significant part of Clarissa’s desire is that she might be well fed and survive.

The divine vitality which Clarissa loves is belied by her glib quotation of Othello, “if it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy,” an hyperbolic allusion to the joys of love; on the other hand, as a serious address on the subject of death, if one were to die as he suggests, Othello’s words on death ironically foreshadow his later rhetorical query that “once put out thy light, …  where is that Promethean heat/ That can thy light relume?” (MD 51;Othello 5.2.10-13). The self-avowed jealousy characteristic of Othello, to which Peter Walsh is susceptible, seems to suggest his complicity, aroused even by his latest affair of the heart, and she feels his jealousy (MD 53, 121).

She inadvertently reads the thematic lines as a mantra, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” from the pages in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline spread open in Hatchards’s window, words from the dirge over the “dead body” of a young woman to be restored to life, disguised as a boy and whom we know is not really dead. As in literature such as Cymbeline, “death and revival, or the disappearance and withdrawal of human figures … generally involves the heroine”; Imogen is such a young woman who had disappeared, or rather withdrawn, by going into transvestite disguise (Frye 183). Dramatic irony makes it consoling to realize that her life will not end absolutely. Peter Walsh, too, recalls Clarissa’s horror of death, that she believed “the unseen part of us … might survive” (MD 231-232). “How unbelievable death was” she feels, even in the face of her sister killed by a falling tree (MD 185).  “How dangerous a thing is life” (Woolf CR 188). Clarissa’s “indomitable vitality” becomes a signature of her own liveliness. The question of the image of white dawn Clarissa is trying to recover suggests a displaced solar myth of return associated with “the sun returning at dawn” which remains temporarily unanswered (Frye 188; MD 12).

Still, in the case of the inevitable, she aspires to reverse that unacceptability: “Oh if she could have had her life over again,” an exclamation of an impossibility as if she wished to come back from the dead; the apparently vain wish carries more significance of its relevance than might be supposed (MD 14). Even Montaigne has claimed that “if he had had to live again … he would have lived the same life over” (CR 67). This line almost tells readers to expect “a narrative of modern life which alludes to a prior myth that is in some sense a key to its meaning, and in which a superficially gratuitous sequence of banal events is guided towards a final thematic epiphany by discreetly planted leitmotifs” (Lodge 223). Among the uses of myth, the device of  “prefiguration … will usually span the entire work” (Hutchinson 73). Accordingly, “feeling very young; at the same time unspeakably aged,” “a child … and at the same time a grown woman,” she alludes to the mythic duality, the mother and maid, two forms of the same divine person who actually has her life over (as Demeter and Persephone), the myth which is “clearly one of death and revival” (MD 11, 63; Frye 138). Clarissa’s “urge toward immortality,” however, passes for a vain hope, almost comic considering its source (Kellman 10). According to Homer, “A man’s life cannot come back again” (Homer Iliad 9.408).

This wish of having her life over, from Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw, her aspiration expressed by the words borrowed, actually pilfered from a world-class Madam, is poised on the “edge of caricature” like the potpourri of  borrowed allusions which enrich the narrative of Clarissa’s life. The source of her desire, an obviously fictive statement, is offered as an apparently factual possibility, in contrasting modes, as if passing from one state of being to the next were as easy as moving from one room to another. It may give a shape and significance to subsequent discourse or even predict the resolution of the plot.

As if reconciling her bank account she tropes life as an investment while acknowledging her literary appropriations. She examines her portfolio, the bookkeeping metaphor, as she ponders the supposed finality of death like an investor facing a margin call. Her life, the secret deposit in the vault and the margin no longer capable of stretching, is dwindling through her frequent withdrawals, her share diminishing, and other shareholders to appear in the narrative, are yet to be repaid – dogs, Mrs. Walker, and even her husband (MD 42-43). She feels she is getting old.

  Clarissa, a fiscal conservative, says, “One must economise,” and she takes pride in spending little, a policy that seems to have served her well (MD 6, 14). On the other hand she recalls dancing all night and having thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, suggesting a misspent youth as an additional level of the text as well (MD 12). Now, she feels obligated to “pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments” those by whom she feels “blessed and purified” until she discovers that her husband, Richard, will be lunching with another woman (MD 42). Remembering that her old friend Peter Walsh “would be back from India” soon relieves her of “the shock of Lady Bruton asking Richard to lunch without her”; she contemplates those memories they share, “bringing him back to her,” memories which “came back” in St. James’s Park where she reasserts her feeling “that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (MD 4, 11).  What would Peter have to say “when he came back”? (MD 54). Clearly, the phrases referring to forms of resurgence emphasize the absurdity of her wish to have her life over and the thematic significance of “coming back” itself.

Redundant themes, death and rebirth, are imaged variously. Clarissa feels “this body she wore … seemed nothing,” her body, the text, is troped as a garment, later a torn dress to be repaired (MD 14, 57). The dirge from Cymbeline reappears now: “Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea.” Even a lusty text manifested as a torn gown which scintillates with ambiguity alludes to intertextuality as Clarissa catches her scarf in another woman’s dress (MD 264).

Peter Walsh, however, suffers from the memories induced by his visit with Clarissa, questioning the necessity, “Why go back like this to the past?”; “why make him suffer when she had tortured him so,”  when it seemed impossible for her to make up her mind finally not to marry him (MD 63). The youthful love affair between Clarissa and Peter was clearly unlikely to succeed even after a boating event which left Peter alone until she “had come back to fetch him” (MD 94). “He was overcome by her generosity – her goodness.” However, Peter’s happiness is short lived since it seems that Richard Dalloway rowed them in. Finally, when “she had to break with him,” a dominating suitor who made terrible scenes, it ends when Clarissa, unable to tell him the truth, went away. “ ‘Clarissa!’ he cried. ‘Clarissa!’ But she never came back” (MD 97). Nevertheless, Regent’s Park, like St. James’s, finds Peter recalling the past with Clarissa: “She kept coming back” (MD 115).

Septimus Smith’s narrative presented as a form of interior duplication actualizes the motif of death and rebirth which Clarissa has introduced. When the War is over, he adopts an existentialist position, suspecting that “the world itself is without meaning,” a possibility that the reader is not yet ready to consider. Yet his florid hallucinations involve the meaning of Evans, his officer who was killed in the War (MD 133). It seems that now Evans has come back. When his wife buys roses, he assumes “they had been picked by [Evans] in the fields of Greece” (MD 141). “There is no death”; these are among the words Septimus hears, Greek words justifying his perception since “Evans was behind the railings!” (MD 36). His wife, Rezia, is nonplussed at his ravings, talking to a dead man whom he sees there (MD 98). “For God’s sake don’t come,” he cries as the scene achieves a level of reality for Septimus when Peter Walsh, as a man in grey, “the dead man in the grey suit” approaches (MD 105).

Septimus sees “Evans” now, “clearly,” and unlike Hector returned unwashed from battle, “with blood and muck all spattered on him,” by contrast “no mud was on him; no wounds”; yet it was surely Evans killed in the War and now seemingly come back to life (Homer Iliad 6.266-288; MD 105). Later, when Evans had come again, he is “singing behind the screen” (MD 212). As Septimus’s suicide approaches, he is still with Evans and receiving “messages from the dead” (MD 224).  The inadvertent announcement of his death will upset Clarissa during her party which is designed for altogether different purposes.

“What did it mean to her, this thing called life?” when she takes the trouble to give a party for no reason – “nobody could be expected to understand.” In the middle of the afternoon Clarissa is troubled. As an offering to life, as the hostess at her parties and standing at the top of the stairs, her parties become an issue for which both Richard and Peter who “criticized her very unfairly, laughed at her very unjustly, for her parties” (MD 183-184). Standing at the top of the stairs suggests the staircase as “the stairs of life” (Lebenstreppe), standing at the top representing the peak of one’s achievements. The next step is a step down.

As an offering to life, it is her gift to combine, to create, “that’s what I do it for”… speaking aloud to life.” Admitting it sounds “horribly vague” to be giving a party “for no reason whatever,” these thoughts now trouble her; after climbing the stairs to her bedroom; “as if she had left a party,” she defines herself as an old woman feeling “shrivelled, aged, breastless” (MD 45).  The old lady opposite climbing her stairs to her bedroom, just as Clarissa had done that morning, clearly suggests that the sight “had something to do with her” and leads to an insight (MD 192. Her speculations on mortality, “how unbelievable death was,” introduce a familiar metaphor, the enigmatic room as a symbol of one’s inner state of mind, as the old lady moves about in her bedroom. Suddenly Clarissa realizes her solution to the mystery of life and death: “that’s the miracle, that’s the mystery…; the supreme mystery … was simply this: here was one room; there another,” a passage between states of being, from life to death, even from death to life as if passing between rooms, from one state of being to another (MD 193).

In the mad world of Septimus Smith the magic realism concerning the apparitions of Evans apparently effects a passage from death to life, a mythic pattern slightly displaced, of death and revival which is a common literary pattern. Another person subtly reinforces the pattern. The scholarly Professor Brierly “who lectured on Milton,” appropriately refers to the necessity of “some slight training in the classics in order to appreciate Milton” and his thematic Sonnet On His Deceased Wife, “brought back to him like Alcestis wrestled away from death by Heracles” (MD 268). The allusion refers to the Greek fairytale of the self-sacrificing wife who, as in the myth of Persephone, actualizes, again, an archetype of death and revival. Further, the reference to Imogen/Fidele in Cymbeline, disguised as a boy and thought dead enough to be reborn, to return to life, also imitates the mythic pattern. The emphasis on the device escapes Clarissa’s attention. Finally, the party dedicated to life is reflected when “old Mrs Hilbery,” amused by Sir Harry’s story about the Duke and the Duchess, stretches “her hands to the blaze of his laughter,” an echo of Walter Savage Landor who “warmed both hands before the fire of life” (“On his Seventy-fifth Year”; MD 267). The festivities are in full swing when Clarissa is intercepted by her friends, Sally and Peter; Clarissa puts them off, ambiguously and thematically, saying, “I shall come later” (MD 275). “They must wait, she meant, until all these people had gone.” Her friends wait patiently together while a sudden and unexpected event is announced. “’I shall come back,’ she had said, looking at her old friends.”

Her party dedicated to life has been brought to near failure when Clarissa is told of the death of Septimus Smith; “in the middle of my party, here’s death” (MD 279). The party, no mere social event, is a festive ritual which provides the opportunity for Clarissa and Septimus to occupy the same narrative space when they could never have met socially. It seems that some effect of this untoward event is implied, some revelation is at hand. “The party’s splendour fell to the floor” when the event was designed, instead, to “kindle and illuminate” (MD 6). It offers the fulfillment of a prophecy uttered in the morning such that the shape of the story gives “the beginning some symmetrical relationship with the end” (Frye 139). The myth of death and revival often concerns a female figure whose symbolic disappearance or withdrawal induces the rebirth (Frye 183). Chagrinned, Clarissa herself withdraws into the little room where she must deal with the life of her party disrupted by the death of the young man. The little room is reminiscent of a room as a mystical symbol of her inner being, the mystery of passing from room to room, from one state to another, discerned when Clarissa apprehends the supreme mystery as she had watched her neighbor who disappeared and reappeared at the back of her room. Clarissa is stunned.  “What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party?” (MD 280).

The young man had thrown away his life while her friends, Peter and Sally, would go on living, rapidly approach old age; whereas for Clarissa, in the present, “nothing could be slow enough; nothing last too long.” Remembering her friends, awaiting her while the party continued, she thinks “she would have to go back; the rooms were still crowded; people kept on coming” (MD 280). “But that young man had killed himself”; the thought returns (MD 282). The perversity of death as conceived by Othello, “If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy” clashes with the song from Cymbeline over the supposed dead body of a woman about to come back to life: “Fear no more,” the little phrase from Cymbeline reverberates as it surfaces from time to time. She remembers Fred, Sylvia, and Sally Seton; she remembers throwing the shilling into the Serpentine. “What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn?” Clarissa had asked herself, a problem in recovering her temps perdu (MD 12-13). Having done with the triumphs of youth, having “lost herself in the process of living,” Clarissa now basks in the pleasure of finding her life “with a shock of delight as the sun rose” (MD 282).

And there it was, “ashen pale, raced over quickly by tapering vast clouds” returning to her the image of white dawn she had formerly wished to recover (MD 283).  Crouching like a bird with an awful fear, she nevertheless has been able to gradually “revive …with immeasurable delight” beside Richard on some meta-temporal plane, when otherwise “she must have perished” (MD 281-282).

With all this going on, Clarissa again sees that her neighbor, the old lady, had put out her light, a candle which itself can be relit, reminiscent of Othello’s query on the loss of life, “If I quench thee, thou flaming minister … I know not where is that Promethean heat that can thy light relume (Othello 5.2, 8-13). Having revived, Clarissa thinks of Sally and Peter together once more, awaiting her return; “she must go back to them … she must go back” (MD 283-284). Among the life-enhancing themes of renewal and rebirth, it seems that for her, too, there is a fire which can be rekindled after one has put out the light. “And she came in from the little room.”

                                                               Molly Hoff




                                      Works Consulted

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