Suicide in Mrs Dalloway: A Teachable Moment
Dying is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
Like the other events in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, the suicide of Septimus Warren Smith, a combat veteran of World War I, exists as an artistic event. Recognizing this approach is facilitated when literary allusions provide astonishing insights, often known as teachable moments. The few merely ornamental quotations are of little value in this respect. Rather, functional literary allusions refer to the meaning of the artistic product; these may put the text into a new context by invoking apposite works of literature demonstrating their self-conscious influence in this novel. These are not mere bonus gifts, not pilóns, or colorful comments of scholarly interest. When these passages explicitly re-purpose a text by some oblique or recondite reference, they offer to discover a new occasion for perceiving meaning and its aesthetic value as well (Alter 116). Each of these offers a teachable moment of insight in the on-going understanding of the anguish experienced by Septimus Warren Smith. Indeed, the pre-formed literary selections covertly composed throughout the novel will be seen as serving to recalibrate the status of Septimus Smith beyond the context of the obvious perceptual disturbances he exhibits.
Woolf’s artistic genius in Mrs Dalloway is not limited to the passages culled from William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Othello. Many literary examples, doorways for those who profess literature, are cross-referenced and familiar in Virginia Woolf’s readings in The Common Reader, a companion work to Mrs Dalloway where the common reader attempts to “come by a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing” (Woolf CR 1). Woolf’s essays commencing with Greek literature and extending all the way to very modern publications serve to provide reassurances for any who might “misunderestimate” her extensive knowledge of literature demonstrated in this novel. Since Mrs Dalloway involves a self-conscious dialogue with literature containing a medley of texts that survey of the novel’s encyclopedic abundance, this essay may offer its admirers a few helpful references concerning Septimus Smith in particular. When they are demonstrated self-consciously to be effective plot devices, a study of such functional allusions seems proper.
His unpleasant derangements incorporate within his consciousness numerous clues implied by pre-formed narratives derived from a world of literary classics and others. Characterizing him in Chaucer’s efficacious mode, the literary allusion, derives from topically “cutting thongs out of other men’s leather” (Woolf CR 22). Here explicit markers, strategic signals referring to the alluding text, often appear in the form of a relevant citation (Alter 119). “To look at, he might have been a clerk,” these are words that draw attention to Septimus Smith (MD 126). Literary associations are readily descriptive of him in the topos of Chaucer’s clerk, wearing an emphatically “shabby overcoat” that gets a triple notice and matches Clarissa’s torn dress. The overcoat styles him as the Oxford clerk (whose tale of patient Griselda is cited in The Common Reader): “Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy [overcoat]” (Chaucer Canterbury Tales “General Prologue” 290).
His first appearance, however, is typically as a young man from the provinces; his mother’s seemingly banal exaggeration citing his coming down to tea fifty times without washing his hands, provides him with a literary association, recalling Trojan Hector who, blood-spattered, famously washes his hands before touching sacred vessels (MD 127; Iliad 6.266). Moreover, his beloved tutor, Miss Pole who sees Septimus in the flower of manhood, has observed, “Was he not like Keats?” (MD 128). His scholarly attempts become important when they are perceived as meaningful and most coherent when they invite others to attach “meanings to words of a symbolical kind” (MD 145).
In spite of the fact that many aspects in his life may seem historically timely, the complex network of functional literary works pertaining to his part of the narrative also serve as plot devices. In earlier published Woolf criticism, a few of these have been disingenuously viewed as plagiarism; others have been simply overlooked. The soldier’s life that composes only a brief episode within his biography, which is usually given justly fervent emphasis, somewhat neglects the extended encounters with the physicians that lead to the detailed account of his death, kindly styled as “the vexing phenomenon,” an unsavory episode (Laird 525).
Unlike “thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shovelled (sic) together, already half forgotten,” Richard Dalloway recalls those killed at Ypres and Verdun. Septimus has survived the war; but not surprisingly he maintains a few bizarre associations in the midst of a London traffic jam, “for the street was blocked,” an unknown motor car stopped, and the Queen herself was “unable to pass” (MD 24). “It is I who am blocking the way,” he reasons, recalling the suicidal battle plan of Verdun that blocked the German forces. Seeing this motor car unable to pass through the street, he interprets his role as himself heroically “blocking the way,” a recurring verbal marker reminiscent of the famous rallying cry of Allied soldiers at the Battle of Verdun – Ils ne passeront pas– “They shall not pass” (MD 21). The scene that “threatened to burst into flames” recalls to him the protracted siege standing for the brutality of human nature that still retains a great psychological hold among the embattled. It is a motif that continues to preoccupy him, and resumes as a model of his future that entails both attacking forces and blocking forces as well. His illness, identified condescendingly as the deferred effects of shell shock, “a very sad case” according to Lady Bradshaw, is usually given careful critical attention if not accurate assessment. His detailed suicide, a true bravado scene conspicuously styled as an art, receives slight mention in the scholarship almost as if it were obscene (MD 279). There is more notice taken of Sally Seton, Clarissa’s childhood friend, and those “poor girls in Piccadilly,” as Sally has it (MD 110).
Much critical energy has been spent on attributing his pathological condition to “shell shock” (Woolf MD 279; see Henke on PTSD). The alliterative nomenclature for this affliction subsequent to participation in the War has persisted in popular culture. This heuristic composing the bulk of the criticism concerning pathology, beyond the scope of this essay, is readily available and requires little further mention. The difference between amateur psychologists and the expertise of professional literary scholars, however, is significant when literature carries considerably greater weight and has received less artistic attention as if the teachable moment has been overlooked. Oddly, disregarding the plethora of references to pre-formed texts does a disservice to the value of literary scholarship. Accordingly, the public’s pejorative consensus maintains an almost benign, if cynical, understated perspective on the war, in the language of the community filtered through the speech of Mr. Brewer, the war that “smashed a plaster cast of Ceres, ploughed a hole in the geranium beds, and utterly ruined the cook’s nerves” (MD 129-130).
Septimus’s anticlimactic disturbances follow upon his military service in France undertaken for the heroic purpose of developing manliness and “saving an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays” (MD 130). Failing this as causal, the Freudian framework often given his inward disturbances is unfortunate, “a hindrance instead of an aid to insight,” since “the literary critic who views the masterpiece solely through the lens of Freud is liable to see art through a glass darkly” (Guerin 146; Iser 39). Stanley Fish argues that such “theories always work and they will always produce exactly the results they predict” (Fish 68). As Patricia Moran has observed, in Virginia Woolf’s opinion, when psychoanalytic theory controls the narrative, science is not art (Moran 11; The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf 195-198). The advice of the essayist Michel de Montaigne is “to leave doctors and wise men to their own dismal philosophy” (CR 65).
Notwithstanding the ongoing publication of the Freud papers in the Hogarth press, Woolf dismisses his theories definitively. In a letter to Molly MacCarthy she sandbags the fashionable approach to the Freudian paradigm when she comments “these Germans think it proves something—besides their own gull-like imbecility” (Woolf Letters 135; see also Ferrer 157). In the year 1920 Woolf’s essay in criticism adds, “There remains the question whether we are not pandering to some obsolete superstition when we thus decree that certain revelations are of medical significance, others of human” (Woolf “Freudian Fiction” 197). As Moran states, Woolf “objected to a reductive application of psychoanalysis to fictional plots,” and the “deleterious influence psychoanalysis had on fiction writing, … that writers influenced by psychoanalysis turned life into a case” (Moran 12). As Woolf explains, “The triumphs of science are beautifully positive. But for novelists the matter is much more complex … Yes, says the scientific side of the brain, that is interesting; that explains a good deal. No, says the artistic side, that is dull” (“Freudian Fiction” 197).
Woolf regularly scoffs at Freud’s influence on fiction, ridicules the scientific basis of psychoanalysis and its tendency to establish groups rather than individuals, and dismisses the new psychology and the morbid theories of Freud that attempt to find the meaning of literature in something that is not literature. In her concise opinion, “it simplifies rather than complicates, detracts rather than enriches.” Insofar as the psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw is derogatively named as “the priest of science,” Virginia Woolf deserves that some notice be taken of her own editorial tastes toward Freudian theory when applied to Mrs Dalloway.
Shell shock, the mental condition under which Septimus Smith supposedly suffers as a post-war affliction is not particularly unique in literature, commencing in Biblical passages; and it is not uncommon in the combat veteran, often appearing in literature without all the troubling finer points. Ancient accounts of psychological battles with oneiric adversaries, consequential to war, are found in Hippocrates, Herodotus, Lucretius, Froissart, even at the Battle of Hastings. Homer has provided a particularly functional marker for this kind of disturbance, however; there is the precedent in epic literature of the Greek hero Achilles haunted by the apparition of his beloved comrade-in-arms Patroclus requesting burial, an instance that is relevant to the disturbing reappearances of Evans experienced by Septimus; “The dead were with him” (Homer Iliad 23, 68-107, 80-120; MD 140). The relationship between the lovers Nisus and Euryalus in Vergil’s Aeneid is comparable.
Shell shock understates the context relative to the young man’s condition that remains a pathological but understandable response to horrifying experiences; literary analysis, however, should not overreach on discussions related to modern psychological theories associated with the patient’s military participation in order to teach Mrs Dalloway as a war novel (Norris). The text explicitly passes over them both, in free indirect discourse emphasizing that “the War was over,” with the cynical observation, phrased as that “shindy of schoolboys” (MD 5, 145). Such interesting issues as shell shock, “in the drift from criticism toward social, philosophical and religious interests,” belong more properly to students of a more scientific persuasion; “some of this seemed to me badly motivated” (Frye Critical Path 14).
Literary criticism, according to Northrop Frye, “grounded on some other subject” which fails “to see what meaning could be discovered in works of literature from their context in literature” assumes that “criticism had no presuppositions of its own.” Frye continues that he has “always insisted that criticism cannot take presuppositions from elsewhere, which always means wrenching out of their real context” (Frye The Critical Path 15, 16). Shell shock, having become a heuristic cliché among the entities that properly accrue in analysis of Mrs Dalloway, “does not account for the literary form”; subjects that deprive critical analysis of the strength of a more literary criticism should not constitute the central issues when lettered material is readily available (Frye Critical Path 19). “To see a great work of fiction or a great poem primarily as a psychological case study is often to miss its wider significance and perhaps even the essential aesthetic experience it should provide” (Guerin 145). The methodology in critical analysis might better rest on the literate experience.
Thus, reading Mrs Dalloway is a complex cognitive process that diverges most productively from the usual medical tract to creative readings of literary analysis. Evidence concerning the impending suicide of Septimus Warren Smith, available to any reader who is current, is apparent from the beginning. “And it was cowardly for a man to say he would kill himself,” according to Rezia, his wife (MD 33). The textual emphasis anticipates the deed. His “big scene,” his suicide, should not be disregarded but, rather, associated rhetorically with everything preceding it.
Septimus is introduced when he is at his worst, “with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too” (MD 20). When the skywriting aeroplane materializes, a device accentuating the writing itself, “making letters in the sky,” it is as much the visual phenomenon of beauty rather than some extraterrestrial sight that he fantasizes: “They are signaling to me. Not indeed in actual words; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty” (MD 29-31). “Tears ran down his cheeks,” as for Proust’s Marcel, at the functional sight of the great wings of the aeroplane, who is “as deeply moved as an ancient Greek on seeing for the first time a demi-god” (Proust 2, 1062). It is writing itself, however, which will preoccupy the suffering veteran. One after another, remnants of the literature of the world will be seen to motivate his disturbance. Hallucinations of birds singing in Greek “beyond a river where the dead walk” conclude with the “ghostly” manifestation of his dead friend, Evans, behind the railings (MD 36; see Sarah Cole). Finally Septimus reveals himself as the scapegoat, the eternal sufferer, “the Lord who had come to renew society” (MD 37). Many of these suggest literal associations that remain unnoticed by Mrs. Dempster, among the rich collection of “London types,” she who instead acknowledges the reality of Maisie Johnson and the aeroplane.
It is quite true that the public appearance Septimus creates is disquieting since Maisie Johnson, passing through Regent’s Park, admits that he “had given her quite a turn” (MD 39). On the other hand, Peter Walsh composed within the “unity of place” calmly assumes the scene with Septimus and Rezia prosaically as “lovers squabbling under a tree; the domestic family life of the parks” (MD 107). The Oxford educated Peter might have associated this with the similar fête champêtre scene from Tibullus with Septimus as the lad so savage that his girl, Rezia, will weep and he would “swear his wits had gone astray” (Tibullus 2.5.101-104, trans. Postgate). For Septimus however, the presence of Peter incorrectly takes the form of an apparition of the dead Evans.
Strangely, Dr. Holmes, with the persistent epithet “human nature,” has said there was “nothing whatever seriously the matter with him” (MD 137, 141, 213). Septimus is merely advised to take an interest in things outside himself, some hobby (MD 31, 34, 138). Dr. Holmes “has the perfect remedy; if he found himself underweight he would have another plate of porridge at breakfast. “(Rezia would learn to cook porridge.)” (MD 138). “What porridge had John Keats?” asks Robert Browning (“Popularity”). It seems odd that there is little in the patient’s outward conduct to indicate to the medical faculty that anything is seriously amiss. His tangled thoughts may confirm the private depths of his disturbance; yet the narrative illustrates the penetrating mentality that frequently typifies his discourse.
Rezia, the regular reporter on his suicidal threats, introduces the topic of suicide: “Septimus had said, ‘I will kill myself’; an awful thing to say” (MD 22). This is an extraordinary announcement for a man who has come through a war unscathed, contrary to that war often designed as a component of the familiar Bildungsroman. “Had he served with distinction? … Yes, he served with the greatest distinction” (MD 145). The ironic object of his participation in combat, with memories such as the Battle of Verdun then, “was produced instantly; he developed manliness” (MD 130). Presently, Rezia’s primary concern now is that people will notice something bizarre in his behavior, while he instead “sees” a dog become a man, giving materiality to a metaphor that will gather some significance in relation to the appearances of Evans (MD 102). Becoming a man is quite simple; even a dog can do it. “Suppose they had heard him?” Rezia “would never, never tell that he was mad” even when he had threatened to kill himself – specifically “to throw himself under a cart,” a seemingly arbitrary choice (MD 33, 35). Some such cart might hardly cause a fatality, being perhaps only a brewer’s cart, or one of those barrows that costermongers leave standing in the streets (MD 125, 175). A single word, “cart” serves as a situational marker relating to the context of the scene taking place in Regent’s Park.
There, Septimus fancies himself wailing like a newborn infant lying naked on the ground like a drowned sailor on a rock, “a castaway” in the metaphor Lucretius created. In the throes of his own parturition, “he strained; he pushed; he looked; he saw Regent’s Park before him” (Lucretius De rerum natura 5.222-227; MD 104). Septimus and Rezia are awaiting their appointment with Sir William Bradshaw subsequent to his suicidal threat, to throw himself under a cart, a seemingly distracted association but rationally suggested by the Jehangir fountain in Regent’s Park (MD 35). “The Indian and his cross” refers to this distinctively ornate structure resembling an Indian temple yet similar to the village “market cross” constructions seen in many English villages. It is a functional allusion relating to this structure, donated by the Hindu, Cowasji Jehangir in 1869 whose bust appears in the pediment (MD 35). Historically viewed, this is a temple, 70 feet high, ritually towed on a large wheeled cart by devotees as part of the festival celebrating the Hindu deity Juggernat’h, the ninth avatar of Vishnu. “Throwing himself under a cart” alludes to frenzied fanatics who have been presumed to throw themselves beneath the wheels of the ceremonial vehicle, or more likely, some worshipper who might have fallen accidentally under the enormous structure during the procession.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a modernist detective story literally presented as a “case study” by the impressiveness of Robert Louis Stevenson, alludes to this complex monument (CR 214, 215, 217; Higdon 74). Early in the narrative Mr. Hyde, Jekyll’s evil alter ego, is in the street that is, significantly, “all lighted up as if for a procession” when he encounters a child whom he runs down onto the ground, “like some damned Juggernaut” (Stevenson 2-3). It seems that the Hindu religious procession referencing fanatic suicidal victims is coupled with the criminal victimization perpetrated by Mr. Hyde which ties the functional reference to Robert Louis Stevenson; its relation to the “Indian and his cross” in Regent’s Park suggests the same deadly prospect for Septimus as victim (MD 35). The associations enrich the discourse. The ideation Septimus exhibits remains madness, but at minimum there is a method in it. Instead, Rezia offers the standard explanation for mental collapse: “Septimus has been working too hard” (MD 33).
Septimus is best understood through recognizing the principal organizing concept, the literary content of his discourse, which is often presented in an obscure form. Many are normal beliefs; others are clearly delusory. His pathology frequently presents in the form of covert references that are configured as allusions to literary content proper to the context of his narrative; ironically, many concern war. His well-read background justifies references which often exploit texts appropriate for an aspiring writer and student such as he; among them are Shakespeare, Darwin, and Bernard Shaw when, prior to the War, he can be found writing, finishing a masterpiece (MD 129). The link between his artistic pursuits and the abnormal manifestations in his mind is substantial. It has been implied that “he becomes little more than a compilation of literary fragments culled from his voracious reading” (Wyatt 440). Yet, highly subtle associations such as throwing himself under a cart, within the “India motif,” require active and thoughtful consideration on the part of a readership that has often remained passive. Thus the India topos instigates literary associations.
It appears that Septimus is still contemplating vague vehicular methods of suicide considering the look in his eyes “as if something fascinated him” when a train went by, or if he had been “stunned by a railway accident” (MD 100; Woolf Common Reader “The Russian Point of View” 174-175). “Suddenly he said, ‘Now we will kill ourselves.’” Once again, a single word, “train,” serves as an oblique marker, its non-specific reference to a train acquires functional significance in Russian literature; trains are not usually deadly, but in Tolstoy this is the exception. Epidemics of suicides, often of the lovelorn, abound in Victorian novels (see Holly Laird on modernist suicide); but in the famous Russian novel of Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, the train is a particularly ominous device relevant to Septimus Smith. The train bookends Anna’s initial appearance in the narrative, when a drunken man is crushed to death under the train, a portent for her suicide when she finally throws herself under the train at the conclusion (Woolf The Common Reader “Notes on an Elizabethan Play” 54). The suggestion is that this method of suicide has occurred to Septimus. This association with the train as a means of suicide might not be relevant without a writerly association with Tolstoy.
Septimus, seeking manliness and saving an England that consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays, “was one of the first to volunteer” (MD 130). Evans enters his life when he “drew the attention, indeed the affection of his officer,” a relationship similar to the Homeric erastes/eromenos relationship between Achilles and Patroclus suggested in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (MD 130). “It was a case of two dogs playing on a hearth-rug,” an illustration of what Jane Goldman has identified as “the signifying dog” after The Signifying Monkey of Henry Louis Gates Jr. According to Goldman, the concern “is not primarily with the modality, or dogginess, of the dog but with its status as a signifier” (Goldman 49). Following the usage of “signifying monkey” by Gates, the similar usage, “signifying dog,” becomes a metaphor for intertextuality, or re-using motifs from previous works but altering them in order to create new meanings for these works which are implied through assorted indirect means. The signifying dog provides for an introduction to the situational relationship between Septimus and Evans within the context of the war.
Septimus and Evans are similarly defamiliarized, as if it were “a case of two dogs.” “They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other,” the term “share” referencing homosexuality as in E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice (MD 130). The signifying dog is actualized by Septimus and Evans in Mrs Dalloway, “one worrying a paper screw, snarling, snapping, giving a pinch … at the old dog’s ear; the other… growling good-naturedly.” With the ink hardly dry in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, that unsettling passage exploits the wrestling motif, a functional allusion having a special purpose in Lawrence who “has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different” (Woolf CR 235). The highly erotic scenario on the carpet detailed in the “Gladiatorial” chapter inspires the new meaning for Septimus and Evans, like signifying dogs, “wrestling” on a hearth-rug: i.e. naked men involved in sexual relations (see also Catron 92). Lawrence’s “Gladiatorial” analogy that is coupled with the signifying dog provides a clever cover for a taboo subject. “And if some one should see, what matter they?” (MD 124).
A great deal remains for the literary critic to examine. For example, many of Septimus’s quasi-mystical symptoms concern flashbacks regarding his compatriot, Evans, the intimacy of their relationship having ceased when Evans was killed in battle and Septimus instead had survived. “The last shells missed him” (MD 131). Attention to the irony of survival in battle abroad yet death at home should not be neglected; psychological pathologies need not enter as a part of this issue when critics have taken such little notice of this fact. Evans himself, having been killed in the War, apparently becomes merely a feature of the psychopathology that Septimus exhibits if the literary aspect is disregarded. In Regent’s Park he “sees” Evans behind the railings (MD 36). Rezia is painfully aware of this, commenting that Septimus who talks to him self also talks to “that dead man Evans” he observes sitting nearby in the person of Peter Walsh (MD 98-99).
Evans singing among the orchids, answering from behind the tree, among the several appearances that are activated by the sudden notice of Peter, evokes a sequence of exquisite beauty, the words of Keats among them: “Beauty, that was the truth now” (MD 105; “Ode on a Grecian Urn”). “But no mud was on him; no wounds; he was not changed” (MD 105). Epic associations, too, derive from the appearance of Peter Walsh, who is present in a neat grey suit, including this pseudo-Homeric reference to Hector, the prodigious hero, who normally comes from battle covered with mud and caked blood, clear markers for the famous Trojan (MD 60, 72). Septimus’s perception of Peter as “Evans” suggests Aeneas’s contrary description of Hector’s ghostly appearance in the Underworld: “How different he was from Hector back from battle,” (Virgil Aeneid 2.383; Homer Iliad 6.268). Peter’s manifestation as “some colossal figure” in the desert like Shelley’s Ozimandias, “The Colossus,” causes Septimus, reminiscent of Achilles’s dream, to cry out to the ghost of Evans, “For God’s sake don’t come!” (MD 105-106).
Clearly, medical attention of some sort is indicated and supplied initially by Doctor Holmes introducing a further functional allusion, bursting through the doors as Rezia, unsuccessfully, blocks his way; the world of Verdun is very near. The annoying attentions of Doctor Holmes are fastened not on the patient but rather on the feminine physical attractions Rezia displays, “And what a very pretty comb, if he might say so, she was wearing,” (MD 138). Upon a second visit “he had to give that charming little lady a friendly push before he could get past her,” forcing his way inside; Rezia, blocking the doorway into her husband’s room uses the room as “Virginia Woolf’s favorite symbol of the personality or state of mind,” thus attempting to protect his symbolic precinct of privacy (MD 138; Richter 213 and note 32). Holmes, still bearing the tag “human nature,” gradually becomes rather more seductive concerning Rezia, even asking her to tea. “It is not the samovar but the teapot that rules in England” (MD 138-139; Woolf The Common Reader “The Russian Point of View” 180). Holmes comments coarsely on his patient’s wife, “quite a girl, foreigner, wasn’t she?” (MD 139). These seduction scenes manquées, signaled by the friendly push administered to that “charming little lady,” eventually present Dr. Holmes offended and “looking not quite so kind” (MD 142).
The internal situational drama marking Holmes’s unauthorized regard for Rezia clearly situates the doctor emphatically as “the brute with the blood-red nostrils” in the inappropriately lecherous role of the Russian doctor Zosimov (Zossimov, in some editions) in Feodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (MD 139-140). Doctor Zosimov, like Holmes, is particularly interested in Raskolnikov’s lovely sister rather than his patient: “But what a delightful girl … almost licking his lips” (Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment Part Three, ch.1, 175; CR 178). Dostoevsky’s parallel incident, although “hampered as he was by prose and as we are by translation,” facilitates interpretation by simplifying a complex idea, since Doctor Holmes’s obnoxious advances toward Rezia have apparently remained unremarked (Woolf Common Reader “On Not Knowing Greek” 31). Unlike Doctor Zosimov who is favorably viewed by all, “and what a nice man,” the unprofessional conduct Dr. Holmes exhibits is reprehensible (Dostoevsky 194). It is not surprising that Mrs Dalloway should have further affinities with Russian literature.
Links between Mrs Dalloway and the Russians have appeared more recently in literary criticism, a logical expectation considering Woolf’s interest in the Russians; Woolf herself read Crime and Punishment on her honeymoon and worked with S. S. Koteliansky translating Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. Others, like Liza Knapp, have treated the shared pain and suffering between characters as in Anna Karenina. Roberta Rubenstein’s extensive work sees a primary influence of Dostoevsky on Woolf’s story, “The Mark on the Wall,” Chekhov’s focus on characters, and Tolstoy’s depiction of mental process. She cites passages Woolf appropriates from The Idiot for Night and Day, and likens the dream of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot to the dream of Peter Walsh in Mrs Dalloway as well (Rubenstein 36). Caroline Lusin claims that the madness of Septimus Smith is modeled on Russian forerunners as a comprehensive consideration of social criticism, presenting states of consciousness in all their complexities (298). The pathology of the ideation Septimus exhibits suggests its Russian associations, particularly those coming by way of Dostoevsky (See also James Curtis on Woolf and the Russians). Significantly, Harvena Richter has seen Septimus Smith as Raskolnikov’s English counterpart (90).
“The interest in the novels of Dostoevsky is attributed to their material, the mysteriously dramatic action, the utterly pathological character of the personages,” says Ortega y Gasset. It is not a sufficient reason for the pleasure we derive, however. A work of art lives on its form, not on its material: “The structure forms the properly artistic part of the work, and on it aesthetic and literary criticism should concentrate,” he adds. “As it is, much has been said about what is going on in Dostoevsky’s novels and very little about their form.” The same can be said for Mrs Dalloway, especially when its form relates to the novel Crime and Punishment of Feodor Dostoevsky that shapes the narrative within a complex intertextual network.
The functional associations relevant to Crime and Punishment under which Septimus suffers resume at the hands of the new medical faculty, Sir William Bradshaw, derogatively cast as an inquisitor, “the priest of science”; and further, they facilitate the interpretation of the discourse. The potential found in this appointment with Bradshaw is suggested by its position within the ominous midday topos, a convention that alerts readers to the imminent threat. It is emphatically midday, “precisely twelve o’clock,” numerically emphasized through being mentioned three times (MD 142).
The doctor, being the son of a shopkeeper and proudly philistine, “who never had time for reading,” retains a limited understanding of his patient. “You have nothing to worry you, no financial anxiety, nothing?” he asks, apparently alluding to Matthew Arnold’s citation as a situational marker: “The newspaper a short time ago contained an account of the suicide of a Mr. Smith, secretary to some insurance company, who, it was said, ‘laboured under the apprehension that he would come to poverty, and that he was eternally lost’” (MD 145, 147; Arnold 157). Innocent of the possibility that Septimus might suffer from associations of a more scholarly content, a literary background could have facilitated his diagnostics. Woolf cautions, “Beware, they say, of putting under the microscope one inch of ribbon which runs many miles” (Woolf “How It Strikes A Contemporary” Common Reader 240).
Unlike the Mr. Smith of Matthew Arnold, Septimus believes he has committed an appalling crime, a conclusion drawn from the doctor’s manner, as if he “had been condemned to death by human nature” which includes a fiction he avows; “I have committed a crime” (MD 145). Critics have assumed a sense of guilt related to his affection for Evans. “Finding fault with a culprit for his good are out of place in an essay” (Woolf “The Modern Essay” Common Reader 212). The emphasis on crime, clearly a marker for the Russian novel, however, is singular. The sustained inquisition to which Sir William subjects his patient takes the form of a detective’s interrogation of a criminal, “the criminal who faced his judges” (MD 146). Sir William Bradshaw here acquires the threatening sobriquet “human nature” he shares with Dr. Holmes: “Human nature is remorseless” (MD 148).
Sir William can be disarming: “We all have our moments of depression” (MD 148). Having admitted that he has committed some crime, Septimus speculates on making his confession, “but what was his crime? He could not remember it” (MD 148). Like Marcel, in another context, “[he] had not the faintest idea of the nature of [his] crime” (Proust 2, 1080). Septimus, “the criminal who faced his judges,” is ultimately condemned to incarceration, much like the Russian Raskolnikov with his nerves on edge facing the clever prosecuting magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich, prominent throughout Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Porfiry’s exaggerated technique of questioning extends his professional persistence to the utmost. “It is conventionally impossible that the [detective] can be mistaken in believing that one of his suspects is a murderer,” as the magistrate subtly induces Raskolnikov to confess to his crime (Dostoevsky 395-390; Frye Anatomy 47).
The extended psychomachia between the magistrate and Raskolnikov, “which at first seemed so casual, inconclusive, and occupied with trifles, now appears the result of an exquisitely original and fastidious taste”; it is designed for eliciting a confession leading to imprisoning Raskolnikov, who himself is guilty of a particularly appalling crime (Woolf The Common Reader “The Russian Point of View” 177). Septimus confesses to having committed some crime, like Raskolnikov. “But what was his crime?” The expectations, likewise, are forced imprisonment; “It was a question of law” (MD 146). An analogy broadens the reader’s understanding through a familiar popular form, the fictional detective Columbo familiar in contemporary television.
According to Ken Tucker, television critic in Entertainment Weekly, the Russian detective Porfiry Petrovich, said to behave like a buffoon, is the original literary model from which a familiar television character is derived. Peter Falk’s “Columbo” of the NBC television series from the 1970s, the verbose police lieutenant in the rumpled raincoat who cleverly channels his Russian counterpart, is famous for his shrewd but irritatingly deferential behavior and annoying circumstantiality. He is also known for repeating the familiar identifying line, “just one more thing,” elaborately framed as the “false exit” device, an irritant that is designed to elicit the suspect’s stalled confession. Porfiry Petrovich, equally verbose, equally irritating to his suspect, just before leaving says, “Let me ask one more little question … just one little idea … it is a very trifling little idea” (Dostoevsky 224-227). Similarly, Sir William obligingly echoes Columbo’s false exit device, like Porfiry Petrovich baiting his victim, “And there was just one thing more” (MD 147). Citing these words, marking the words of Porfiry, Sir William Bradshaw morphs into the Russian detective. Meanwhile, it is Doctor Holmes who bears the name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective if not his identity.
Both Sir William Bradshaw and Lieutenant Columbo derive from the famous original, Porfiry Petrovich of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment who finally suggests that sometimes “a man feels drawn to jump out of a window”-- “Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing” (Dostoevsky 292; MD 226). Septimus makes an odd image for the deluded actions of Raskolnikov, yet he answers the unstated demand with his query, “But if he confessed? If he communicated? Would they let him off, his torturers?” (MD 148). The essayist Michel de Montaigne, with a touch of Schadenfreude, confirms that “communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness.” His allusion to the “talking cure” is suggested by his counsel, i.e. to “bring to light those hidden thoughts which are most diseased” (CR 64-65). The link to the Russian point of view establishes the medical context (physician, illness, patient) with the criminal component (detective, crime, criminal). Septimus is Bradshaw’s version of Raskolnikov; Porfiry is Raskolnikov’s Bradshaw. Rezia observes that, unlike Columbo and Porfiry Petrovich who are on the side of justice, “Sir William Bradshaw was not a nice man” (MD 149). The crime, however, and its associated guilt exist only in the mind of Septimus Smith.
The relationship between Holmes and Bradshaw, both being practicing physicians, is strained; Dr. Holmes is resentful of the Smiths, who are not “rich people” and who lack confidence in him, those who resort to “Harley Street” (MD 142). Sir William Bradshaw, for his part, is no more respectful of general practitioners: “It took half his time to undo their blunders” (MD 145). Hence similarities between the two physicians seem remote. Yet, in an early draft of the narrative, during his meeting with Sir William Bradshaw, Septimus is alone while Rezia and Dr. Bradshaw confer; Septimus assumes that the doctor’s purpose is “to seduce her” (Wussow 130). When they return, Rezia has been crying and Septimus thinks, “She has been seduced” (Wussow 132). In the final version the seductive associations related to Doctor Zosimov were shifted to the lascivious Dr. Holmes, it seems, leaving Porfiry Petrovich to characterize Sir William Bradshaw. The similarities between the two men remain remote until Clarissa Dalloway enters the picture to make further parallels between the two physicians clear, those somehow making life intolerable.
The last grievous apparitions of Evans occur as Septimus is awaiting his remove to the hospital at Sir William’s behest: “That man, his friend who was killed, Evans, had come, he said. He was singing behind the screen” (MD 212). It is to Rezia’s credit, under the circumstances, that she prepares to accompany Septimus by packing for his incarceration a few items like razors ultimately dangerous, saying (like Charles Dickens’s Mrs Macomber) “They could not separate them against their wills”; this is a popular topos long before David Copperfield’s day (MD 224). Yet his suicide brings the narrative to an abrupt rhetorical halt that seems incongruous since he and Rezia now appear to be at peace with Sir William’s demands. “As if the five acts of a play that had been very exciting and moving were now over,” the turning point has arrived as in the traditional structure of drama according to Freytag and Horace; however, the coming crisis in the Septimus subplot seems prematurely introduced since the death of the protagonist appears at the end of this “third act” when there are yet several acts to come (MD 70).
When a plot like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is so constructed with the death of the titular “hero” coming at this turning point, what is to be done with the play after he has been killed, as if “the five acts of a play were now over?” (MD 70). As Flaubert comments, “Every work of art must have a point, a summit, a peak to the pyramid” (Dällenbach 70). The turning point of the “third act” tends to appear toward a shift to the left or the right, “off center” as it were, in order to avoid a too rigorous symmetry; it marks a shift “towards the golden section,” a construction also known as Divine Proportion, according to the parabasis enunciated by Sir William Bradshaw (Dällenbach 70; MD 150-151). The crisis in the subplot is placed at the point that confers the aesthetically pleasing qualities of the golden section in many works of art, anticipating the dénouement. “Biologists, artists, musicians, historians, architects, psychologists, and even mystics have pondered and debated the basis of its ubiquity and appeal” (Livio 6). The narrative position of the story of Septimus Smith takes full advantage of this concept, his death in the third act, his “sense of proportion” (MD 151).
The suicide scene, which one critic has correctly described as “almost pretty,” serves as the cadenza for the story of Septimus, and is formed as a showpiece in an exaggerated, self-conscious figure known as a priamel. The logic of the priamel follows a formal conceit in which several choices are enumerated as a listing of two or more items, each of which are rejected in favor of the last item, the climactic, which acquires in that way some increased importance. This rhetorically ornamental passage, demonstrating some literary knowledge, is prominent in Mrs Dalloway, among other literary figures such as in Catullus 43, Sappho 16, and in the poetry of Propertius (in the first three books of his elegies the form is almost overdone).
All of the characters in Mrs Dalloway enunciate at least one and sometimes more such structural embellishments, among them some of the most memorable lines in the novel; the form appears many times. For example, Clarissa has thought concerning herself, “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated” (MD 46). Peter, too, says, “But it was Clarissa one remembered. Not that she was striking; not beautiful at all; there was nothing picturesque about her; she never said anything specially clever; there she was, however; there she was” (MD 115). Septimus himself has already shown some inclination for this figure of paratactic comparison when he sees the skywriting aeroplane; his remarks at that time are exemplary of the priamel form: “They are signaling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty” (MD 31).
For Septimus, the priamel form is anticipated in the remote past while he had been under the care of Doctor Holmes and the world was demanding: “Kill yourself.” At that time, carefully considering the best method for killing himself, he composes the elements of the figure of the priamel; “how does one set about it, with a table knife, … by sucking a gaspipe? He was too weak … A voice spoke from behind the screen. Evans was speaking.” With Evans “speaking,” alarming Rezia, she had then sent for Dr. Holmes (MD 140-141). This brief scenario appears as a smaller version that is embellished in the event yet to come and is also associated with the interference of Dr. Holmes.
The unusual style of the priamel in the suicide scene supplies an elaborate flourish for an otherwise very grim event. Being constructed as an example of artistically concise discourse, “the priamel will give order to an otherwise random list and provides the intensity that a listing would lack” (Race 42; 34 examples). This is one of the great literary moments in Mrs Dalloway, hardly a text to be avoided. When studied through the patterns of convention, its structural principle is consistent with the educational contract, a teachable moment; it self-consciously emphasizes rhetorical form rather than matters interesting for non-literary reasons that pursue some metaphysical cloud outside literature.
The crass behavior suggested by Dr. Holmes, the brute with the blood-red nostrils, soon becomes an imminent threat, “snuffing into every place” (MD 223). In the muddled thought of the patient, he is remembered emphatically and repeatedly as Septimus fixates on the sideboard and the four-fold mention of the plate of bananas, an understated phallic marker that has been made notorious by association with Molly Bloom’s dildo, “a genteel imitation of Joyce’s Ulysses” (MD 211, 215, 220; Higdon 74). The sudden and unwarranted arrival of Dr. Holmes on the stairs, still in the persona of “human nature” in the referential context that the phallic bananas bears for Septimus, inspires his unspoken fear since he is prone to “attaching meanings to words of a symbolical kind” (MD 145). Rezia, who “ran down to prevent him from coming up,” blocks the way protectively as before, saying to Holmes, “I will not allow you to see my husband.” “Barring his passage,” she would not let him pass. Once again, however, Holmes places his hands on Rezia, “putting her aside,” while attempting to force his entry through the door to his room as before (MD 224).
Dr. Holmes, the “beast with the blood-red nostrils” has returned (MD 139). In fear, Septimus is clearly preoccupied with the phallic bananas that suggest the doctor might seduce Rezia or that he might come to harm himself. His preparations for escape are given in the priamel form, enunciating several choices and rejecting each of them in order. At first, Rezia attempts to bar the doctor’s entry as before. “Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door. Holmes would say ‘In a funk, eh?’ Holmes would get him.” As before Septimus speculates on the method of killing himself, as a compound priamel. “He considered Mrs. Filmer’s nice clean bread knife with ‘Bread’ carved on the handle. Ah, but one mustn’t spoil that.” Resuming the form already established, he asks, “The gas fire? But it was too late now.” Next, he thinks, “Razors he might have got, but Rezia, who always did that sort of thing, had packed them.”
The patterned speech in this heightened style increases the rhetorical and theatrical impact. The succession of priameln is almost completed when he decides on jumping from the window following the cynical account of the Russian detective, Porfiry, mentioning a man “flinging himself off a tower”; for Septimus there is only the “tiresome, the troublesome, and rather melodramatic business of opening the window and throwing himself out” (Dostoevsky 385). The final component of his suicidal rationale repeats the priamel structure, “It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia’s” (MD 226). Specifically, his landing on the “area railings” lacks detail; he is said to be “horribly mangled” but it is the rusty spikes, not the aesthetically designed plunge that kills him (Shakespeare Henry V 4.4.39: “mangled … by my sword”: i.e. penetrated). The compound form of the priamel, foregrounding the figure itself as much as the suicide, turns up the volume on “artifice” and turns it down on “realism”; however his heroic katabastic fall is mitigated with a mock-heroic finale that includes the slapstick collision between Dr. Holmes and Mrs. Filmer flapping her apron in the resulting confusion. Dr. Holmes, according to custom, having burst the door open, pronounces Septimus a coward (MD 226). Rezia merely notes that he is dead. The formal description of consequences leading to his demise sadly arrives at a comparatively unceremonious conclusion for the present.
The conventional messenger bearing the news of the event, “a very sad case,” to Mrs Dalloway at her party is Sir William Bradshaw’s wife: She comments, “He had been in the army.” In the remoteness of the “vast catastrophe of the European war,” she speaks without emotion (CR 34). For Clarissa it is a shock. “Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party; here’s death, she thought.” (MD 279). As the benevolent female figure of the “fourth act,” Clarissa Dalloway takes up the news shared by the belatedly arrived Bradshaws. She mends the omission of details in the conclusion of the suicide; she imagines, “He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness,” the explicitness of the words being direct markers of emphatic allusion (MD 280). What seems to be the mere pounding in his head achieves a level of poignancy when seen in a poetic frame.
Clarissa acknowledges the War, for the British, as a “literary war”; she invokes the poem of Siegfried Sassoon on the Western Front whose soldier hears the guns: “Hark! Thud, thud, thud, –– quite soft … they never cease” (Sassoon “Repression of War Experience”; Silkin 133-132). Although she is chagrined that Septimus forces a memento mori (“Remember that you too must die”) upon her at her lively party, she legitimizes the act herself. This is the point of recognition revealing a hidden plot device that has remained obscure (Frye Fables 26). Clarissa has previously been acquainted with Sir William Bradshaw, a guest at her party, but “she did not know what it was—about Sir William; what exactly she disliked.” In sum she feels somehow “one wouldn’t like Sir William to see one unhappy” (MD 278). The mystery for her remains as the young man who had killed himself: “But why had he done it?” The rationale comes by way of a literary allusion.
Rezia had been unable to block the intrusive passage of Dr. Holmes into her husband’s room at last, offering a final functional allusion to the Trojan War. The thud, thud, thud of the guns mirrors Pyrrhus invading the naked private rooms of Priam by his repeated hammerings; his power makes a breach and the door gives way: “He made a way by force” (“fit via vi,” Vergil Aeneid 45). However, Clarissa makes the pernicious “Russian” association by comparable imagery shared between Holmes and Bradshaw. Her impressions correctly lead her, in a moment of womanly insight, to the intrusiveness of Sir William Bradshaw among men making life intolerable. By “forcing your soul” like Doctor Holmes repeatedly “forcing” the door to his patient’s room, each threatens a metaphorical violation of privacy literalized as an “indescribable outrage,” each equally abhorrent (Hoberman 110; MD 281).
Being in sympathy with the young man, “she felt somehow very like him,” his death a reminder of her own mortality. “Death was defiance,” she concludes, since she imagines him analogically under attack. “Death was an attempt to communicate” as he had proposed, by way of the ancient rhetorical device, memento mori, as a counsel to cease wasting one’s own life as Clarissa had in her youth. “She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away,” her final priamel (MD 280). Montaigne, however, has counseled, “Let death come upon us planting our cabbages” (CR 66). Here, Death comes, uninvited, crashing her party world dedicated to life. “But enough of death; it is life that matters” (CR 66). In the end, reconciled to the inevitability of the event, “she felt glad he had done it. … He made her feel the beauty” (MD 283-284). Thus his mind no longer seems in such disarray as before.
In Mrs Dalloway the allusions support the special task of demonstrating the way in which the text operates within a coherent literary scaffold. “The criticism which studies literature through its organizing patterns of convention, genre and archetype enables [the reader] to see what that structure is” (Frye Critical Path 29). They serve to accent the perspective and supply the framework required for interpreting the relevance of each situation in which Septimus Smith finds himself. The associations with the Battle of Verdun are sufficiently disquieting in themselves, but the rubric of Russian literature, channeling Dostoevsky among others, economically supplies the links between the narrative and the details offered by its literary nuances.
The substantial communication with various literary sources “depends quite obviously, on a high degree of cultural literacy” and ignores clinical approaches that may creep into any analysis (Alter 119). “The impulse to find the ultimate meaning of literature in something that is not literature” represents a practice that fails to generate the aesthetic purposes of the narrative (Frye Critical Path 19). Robert Alter has said, “good literature is the continual, apt discovery of the unexpected” (Alter 229). The hope is that learned readers may make use of the riches that originate from within a literary tradition that clearly leaves its mark.
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