Telling Details: The Game of Artifice in Mrs Dalloway
The physician Alkmeon observed, with Aristotle’s approval,
that men die because they cannot join the beginning to the end.
Games suggest important details associated with the social activities of the annual London Season and with the playfulness in Mrs Dalloway. Upon opening, the novel summarizes associated games and sporting events. “There was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats; Lords, Ascot, Ranelagh and all the rest of it” (MD 6). References to games and sport achieve a level that pertains to all the characters in one way or another. Brian Stonehill aptly states that novels like Mrs Dalloway transform the reader, correspondingly, “into its own playing field” (Stonehill The Self-Conscious Novel 182). According to Stonehill, playfulness is found in “the ludic theory of art––the conception of art as a game or form of play” (12). Playfulness constitutes a detail in Mrs Dalloway that deserves serious attention.
The term “game,” frequently used in modern literary criticism should be understood as idiomatic, a term of art among several literary devices applied in a figurative sense. Among them are included subtle or literary allusions and jesting games with character’s names that may be suggestive of theme. The rules of such self-contained games “have no necessary application outside the game” other than the willing suspension of disbelief (Stonehill 13). The rhetoric of play and games in producing literary texts represents a long and distinguished history in literary analysis rather than as a competitive contest in game theory. In Mrs Dalloway, for example, the system is “gamed,” or manipulated for achieving some desired outcome, by obscuring the rules that ordinarily relate to narrative as when literary allusions enter the discourse. “We derive pleasure from the recognition of an obscure conception, we admire the dexterity of the author, we derive satisfaction from a feeling of having mastered the challenge” (Hutchinson 42; see also Fernald 61).
The social game involves much literary play. Mrs Dalloway, reflexively flaunting its own artifice, exhibits “a style of highly integrated intertextual references much harder to identify” than has been ordinarily supposed (Fernald 54). One must discern which details really count among those “set up against a background of literary tradition and convention” says Robert Stam (128). Not everyone, however, participates with pleasure. Readers are not all equal to the critical requirements. “Playful writing demands a different sort of effort from the reader than does standard prose” (Peter Hutchinson Games Authors Play 13). The party that Clarissa Dalloway contemplates offers a context for various forms of play.
The London Season sparkles with social events such as dinner parties, balls, and charity bazaars offered by hostesses like Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa is preoccupied with her party; Richard Dalloway her husband, concerned for her health, adds his caveat that “if she worried about these parties he would not let her give them” (MD 181). Peter Walsh and Richard discredit the frivolity of Clarissa Dalloway’s anticipated party equally: “Both of them criticized her unfairly, laughed at her very unjustly, for her parties”; “and both were quite wrong” since “what she loved was simply life” (MD 183). This love for life expresses Clarissa’s trademark posture. Yet Peter, rather conscious of games, examines the cricket scores in the press. “Cricket was important” (MD 247). He is also seen making a play for games through his literary allusions with a few telling details, those leaving out much of the essential meaning, those that compel susceptible readers to take a more active part.
Literary games, just as sportive as cricket, appear in disguises such as Clarissa adopts while walking in London, meeting her old friend Hugh Whitbread: “It’s better than walking in the country” (Fernald 58; MD 7). Here the literary detail involves Phaedrus, a young friend of Socrates who likewise prefers walking in the city, the reference initiating a subtle game; here an obscure imitation from antiquity is playfully concealed in dispassionate language (Plato Phaedrus 227a). There is a sense that the numerous literary allusions give a “strong tinge of élitism,” according to Stonehill, “a sense that those who do not share a certain body of knowledge are excluded from the implied audience” (7). This reference is usually regarded as mere chatter since recognizing literary games requires us “to take on new powers of perception and judgment” (Bruss 156).
The allusion to a learned treatise from antiquity, issuing from the lips of the society hostess, exhibits a telling detail. “The interplay between two highly dissimilar contexts represents a source of amusement” (Hutchinson 109). Mrs Dalloway often exploits such incongruity, matter-of-factly expressed. Characterizations in literature employing such games, often viewed as shady schemes or calculated strategies represented in an evasive style, draw the reader into a more playful relationship with the text.
As a recurring motif, playfulness encoded in obscure allusions supports a significant pattern in Mrs Dalloway; such play is not merely a capricious diversion but is rather a writerly entertainment engaging the reader’s expectations, a high-risk, high-reward rhetorical strategy. “Richard said one must take risks,” a metacritical comment made in the course of his own composition (MD 166). The riskiness of challenging the reader to identify the particular interest in question is high; when the point of such a narrative is overlooked, the author risks being misunderstood since a reader may have failed to apprehend that a game is in progress. “The more successful the method, the less it attracts attention” (Woolf’s law “Introduction” viii).
Students pondering “why there is so little action,” as David Higdon observes, overlook telling details, having missed the point. The late Elizabeth Bruss explains: “Since literary games are disconcerting to those who approach [narratives] looking for mimesis, emotive force, or formal beauty, they are often described in negative terms” (Bruss 155). Literary play, clandestinely framed, requires very different interpretive procedures.
Self-consciously drawing attention to itself through sport serves as an important indication of play in Mrs Dalloway, the Season itself being a high-class social game; its traditional formalities were “loosening since the 1890s, but its spirit remained strong in the 1920s” (Higdon 77). The flower show, the garden party at Buckingham Palace, and gatherings at Hatfield House, all constituents of the Season, are second only to games at Lords and Ascot. It is common that references to sporting and social games signal games with works of literature that seek to intrigue the reader (Hutchinson 37).
Devices featuring play and its relationship with other works of fiction indicate a self-consciously instituted, and ostentatiously constructed, playful text; much is demanded from the reader who is asked to follow many details, steeped in ambiguity, while being guided “by the terminology and the philosophy of sport” (Bruss 159; Hutchinson 4). Playing the game, acknowledging its gaiety, depends upon noting the exact diction of the narrative if its very existence is to be detected; allusions may be completely effaced if dismissed in paraphrases and summaries. Words matter.
Thus, when Clarissa comes through various doors, her entrances are each composed with telling details, such as saying that she “would buy the flowers herself,” not gloves as in the embryo version, just as Molly Bloom plans to buy flowers at the conclusion of Joyce’s Ulysses (James Heffernan “Woolf’s Reading”). For that matter, Peter Walsh, too, might be echoing Molly Bloom’s repetitive affirmation, a clever stage of play: “Oh, yes, she will see me … Yes, yes, yes, he muttered” (MD 59). The game of intertextuality with references such as these, covert parallels with Joyce’s Ulysses, is most effective if it is viewed as gamesmanship.
Mrs Dalloway’s characters participate in various athletic games. Elizabeth Dalloway is off to play hockey (MD 119). Dr. Holmes, on a bad day, plays a therapeutic round of golf; Hugh Whitbread is said to go into tennis, although not deeply (MD 137, 155). Mr. Brewer, Septimus Warren Smith’s employer featured in the on-going name game, advises football for the weakly although Doctor Holmes prescribes cricket, “the very game” (MD 129, 37). “In Britain, football and boxing have always been popular, … although it has probably been cricket which has featured most frequently” (Hutchinson 65). There is always a game in play with learned games among them. Sports signal to the attentive reader a “marker” for the presence of a literary game. Such hints, according to Elizabeth Bruss, assist readers in interpretation, but, as she claims, “Clues … may be too well concealed for all readers to recognize their relevance” (in Hutchinson 11).
The playful procedure for provoking the challenge that literary games propose, not merely to amuse, manipulates the reader’s expectations for some intellectual consequence. The more recondite the reference, however, the more gratifying to those who are able to recognize the mechanism of a game. Play through obscure literary allusions (the word derived from Latin alludere, “to play with”) may be the most common. Functional allusions modify the meaning of the artistic product, give structural control, reveal patterns of associated attributes, and impart signals designed for assisting interpretation; “fun is part of functionality” (Ben Schneiderman, computer scientist). “With a literary allusion in particular, an entire work is activated, and so the reader is not solely tempted towards seeking parallels between characters or between plots, but also between themes” (Hutchinson 59).
This recurring element indicates the presence of a literary game in Mrs Dalloway, a significant pattern as in Shakespeare’s Romance, Cymbeline, so uncommon as to resemble a clue (Fernald 55). “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” an obscure citation that Clarissa reads among the books displayed in Hatchards’s window quotes the dirge marking the faux death and revival of Imogen the heroine in transvestite disguise (Waugh 37; Cym. 4.2.258; MD 13). Thought a woman of easy virtue, being disguised in masculine garb involves not only her double identity but also suggests her death as a woman and her rising, revived as a man.
Robert Alter eloquently offers verbatim citations such as “Fear no more” as being among the most explicit markers in the alluding text (Alter 119). The words aligned with this rather obscure Shakespearean drama represent a telling detail associated with Clarissa’s horror of death. “And of course she enjoyed life immensely” (MD 118). This sentiment embodies a subtle and detailed form of game associated with her “feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (MD 11).
Clarissa’s love of life is expressed in the covert circularity of her apparently idle ejaculation, “Oh if she could have had her life over again!” a verbatim phrase borrowed from the heroine of George Bernard Shaw’s romance, Mrs Warren’s Profession (MD 14). Having her life over again presents a circular game for the narrative and her entire life as well, as if for her there would be no death, surviving somehow in the streets of London (MD 11-12). Having her life over is not only an imaginative suggestion indicating her sincere wish to cling to her life but is also contradictory in terms of reality. Only the most fortunate reader will see it as a characterizing device, a playful use of the fourth act lament of the eponymous procuress (aka “Kitty”) in Shaw’s problem play with its carefully veiled secret at the center, “Oh, if I only had my life to live over again,” (a telling detail).
This play, George Bernard Shaw’s outrageously daring drama, introduces a complex onomastic focus; the title contains a name with several references to Clarissa’s plot line. Mrs Warren’s playwright, whose name shared with Septimus Warren Smith, also appears on his reading list. This play concerns a world-class Madam who apparently manipulates the interpretive frame of Mrs Dalloway to an unforeseen level (MD 129). “In Mrs Warren’s Profession Shaw declared himself … by writing a play that deliberately reversed every convention of the fallen-woman drama” (Kerry Powell, ed. Cambridge Companion 229). Mrs. Warren is a woman whose titular profession includes a string of European brothels.
The foreground of Shaw’s play, proselytizing his radical point of view regarding male privilege and the rights of women, emphasizes the fact that, playing on the word, other professions for women are not readily available. It introduces problems based on paternity following the aperçues concerning the previously unrecognized consanguinity between the Warren daughter, Vivie, and Frank Gardner, the romantically involved son of a former suitor who may likewise be Vivie’s biological father. The speech shared between Clarissa Dalloway and Mrs. Warren seems to hint at similarities between them, perhaps intentionally raising false expectations.
Shaw’s play, banned in Victorian London, suffered under the customary contemporary morality that “required that a woman such as Mrs. Warren would be expected to commit suicide at the end of the play” (Sova on censorship 187). Mrs Warren derives from a story of Maupassant, Yvette, the distressed daughter of her “professional” mother; it is she, not the mother, who commits suicide. Clarissa Dalloway, associated with the words if not the mores of Mrs. Warren, escapes this obligation of the fallen woman. A succès de scandale, the performance of Shaw’s play that itself lacked the obligatory death was very bad “box-office” in its time.
Clarissa ponders a telling detail concerning her own daughter’s paternity, an issue that is material to Mrs Warren as well. Elizabeth Dalloway’s dark appearance is unlike that of the fair-haired, blue-eyed Dalloway family, like “a hyacinth which has had no sun”–– “l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs,” translated as “the shade over young girls in flower” (my translation; MD 186; Proust RTP Vol. I). Mrs. Hilbery, too, comments on the discrepant likeness of a Mongol wrecked on the coast mocking the “Oriental mystery” involving Elizabeth’s paternal forebears. (MD 186). The history between Vivie Warren and Frank Gardner, unknowingly sharing a father, complicates their relationship. Furthermore, the narrative of Mrs Dalloway introduces questions regarding Clarissa’s history of dalliances with Peter and Richard.
Matters of prostitution in London, perhaps with Moll Pratt for instance, appear provocatively in Mrs Dalloway, an issue discussed by David Bradshaw (193). Peter’s fantastic pursuit of the questionably respectable girl, whose appearance in Haymarket and Regent Streets is ambiguous among “houses of vague impropriety” according to David Bradshaw (MD 78-81). Richard Dalloway, too, smiles “good-humouredly” at the woman in Green Park while pondering “the problem of the female vagrant” (MD 176). Moreover, Sally Seton’s position, similar to Shaw’s feminism blaming society instead of the woman, accuses Hugh Whitbread: “She told him that she considered him responsible for the state of ‘those poor girls in Piccadilly’” (MD 110).
Are we to assume the euphemism rendered as an established phrase, that Clarissa may be no better than she ought to be? Or is this a red herring, a false clue among many that creates an enigma by picking and choosing relevant elements from Shaw’s play unnecessarily? Playing on the word “profession”, however, when considered in the frame Mrs. Warren, provides one of the few, if disreputable, professions open to women in her day; Mrs. Warren, who shares her name with Septimus Warren Smith asks, “if people arrange the world that way for women, there’s no good pretending it’s arranged the other way.” Vivie, ranking as a Wrangler from Cambridge (who like Elizabeth Dalloway doesn’t get on with her mother, as Peter remarks) is professionally in a good position. Currently, Elizabeth Dalloway is fortunate as well, Miss Kilman maintains, playing on the word; “law, medicine, politics, all professions” are now open to women. Elizabeth’s choice of a “profession” is more typical of Vivie Warren than her mother: “She might be a doctor. She might be a farmer” (MD 198, 206).
The wit associated with the citation from Mrs Warren’s Profession offers surprise and delight issuing from the incongruity and the ultimate origin of Clarissa’s aspiration to have her life over again in the very words of Shaw’s promiscuous professional. The challenge remains for the reader who must recognize this as play and then apply it to the present context (Hutchinson 107). Thus, for the highly literate reader, the game requires a decision as to whether her quotation may be a playful clue to a narrative that consorts promiscuously with many texts (Hutchinson 66). Yet, Clarissa remains an enigma.
Students immediately understand, “How disconcerting, even threatening, it is to have an old flame, especially one that proposed marriage, suddenly appear again in one’s life” (Higdon 74). Peter Walsh had called her “the perfect hostess,” an epithet of coded significance that somehow offends her more than any apparent reason may indicate, another telling detail. “She had cried over it in her bedroom” (MD 10). Peter recalls that Clarissa, with her perfect manners like a real hostess, had “winced all over” (MD 93). The effect of play at this point comes not from “predispositions laid down, not by an empirical reality, but by the text itself,” according to the theorist Wolfgang Iser (34).
Peter’s unreconstructed accusations against Clarissa’s parties resume when his jealousy of Richard Dalloway in the distant past materializes. He had claimed that her marriage to Richard would “stifle her soul,” and “make a mere hostess of her” (MD 114). His blame implies that here something is at play, with an economy of thought and “the canny embezzlement of previous art” that summons the bon mot of Marcel Proust: “the good offices of the procuress (entremetteuse) are part of the duties of the perfect hostess” (Edwards 23; Proust RTP 2.388). Peter’s term “perfect hostess” encourages alignment with the Proustian appellation and the unseemly context of Shaw’s Madam, an affiliation with Mrs. Warren’s “profession” that would be sufficient to offend Clarissa. “Play must draw attention to itself,” peace to Woolf (Hutchinson 12).
Peter’s morning visitation ends with Peter seizing Clarissa by the shoulders and asking, “Are you happy, Clarissa? Does Richard––”; the rhetoric of omission injects an element of suspense that Elizabeth the daughter interrupts before the heavy breathing starts. Now, the simple love story about its eponymous subject has become a question of what Richard may or may not do on her behalf; Clarissa’s nature may have escaped the undertones associated with Mrs. Warren unless Peter’s entremetteuse encourages the reader to align the term further with the questionable role of the Shavian heroine. None of this would have come into question without the understatement, as in Mrs Dalloway, “an essential modality of the language of literature” according to Robert Alter (111).
Mrs Dalloway is an exuberantly ludic text, playfully drawing attention to its self, subverting established rules of narration, and involving alternative interpretations that may yield hidden meanings. “Of all games known to man, those in literature would seem to rely on rules the least” (Hutchinson 5). The realism of the London settings serving as backdrops for narrative is undercut by the playfulness that connects socially awkward concepts with what has seemed a Romance, an otherwise conventional story. On the other hand it has been said, “All art is conventionalized but where the convention is most obvious and obtrusive the sense of play, of accepting the rules of a game, is at its strongest” says the well-known Northrop Frye in Nevo, on comedy in Shakespeare (8). The only rule is to play the game well.
Although play is treated seriously, “the player-reader is free to challenge, overturn, reorganize what he is told” (Bruss 158). The substance of obscure allusions in question may be exclusive, even qualitatively aristocratic, a pleasure only for the selective and well read; they merit serious analysis and an educated recognition of preformed language bearing a wide range of unpredictable aesthetic effects (See also Fernald 61). Sally Seton places Mrs. Dalloway metacritically in this elite company: “For, said Sally, Clarissa was at heart a snob –– one had to admit it, a snob” (MD 289).
Thus, says Ronald Sukenick, “A story is a game someone has played so you can play it too” (Waugh 34). Patricia Waugh, on self-conscious fiction adds, “All art is ‘play’ in its creation of other symbolic worlds” (Waugh 34). A literary game, according to Hutchinson, is “any playful, self-conscious and extended means by which an author stimulates his reader to deduce or speculate, by which he encourages him to see a relationship between different parts of the text, or between the text and something extraneous to it” (Hutchinson 14). The significance of telling details, perforce, may only become clear in the concluding stages (Hutchinson 5). “The author’s moves must contain built-in concessions to an expected audience or there will be no play” (Bruss 162).
The “play,” an activity that apparently exists only for its own sake, consists in detecting some significance beyond the occasional incongruities. For example, that morning Peter has been silently contemplating Clarissa’s “playing about; going to parties” when she suddenly institutes an ironic game, teasing him about her party with a playful allusion that toys with his reputed cultural literacy and her party, “Which I shan’t ask you to,” a comment that makes sense only in relation to some prior knowledge, a very sophisticated form of game (MD 61). Her words throw an enigmatic spotlight on lines of the Greek poet Theognis of the 6th century BC who often mused “on the transience of life” (Higdon 75): “I won’t invite you to the party nor forbid you. When you are present, I’m distressed but when you go away, you are still loved” (Theognis 1207-8 trans. Dorothea Wender).
Two levels of meaning support this passage, what is said and what is implicated. Peter asks himself, “Why wouldn’t she ask him to her party?” (MD 118). The irony, saying one thing and meaning the opposite, consists in sensing what has been left unstated, “Of course you will be invited.” Irony is the figure most likely to escape detection in games. Some games are “so well concealed, so subtle or so complex, that the vast majority of readers is likely to overlook them or to remain ignorant of their full ramifications” (Hutchinson 38). Although Peter is to comment later that Clarissa had an exquisite sense of comedy, he, like an irony-blind reader, does not grasp the humor in words unrecognized as allusive. Without the reader’s expertise in ancient Greek poetry that Peter presumably possesses, the game appears incoherent if seen by the wrong standards of intelligibility.
As he approaches Regent’s Park, Peter’s most pertinent observation prepares for the final scene with a reminiscence of Clarissa and doorways: “She came into a room; she stood, as he had often seen her, in a doorway with lots of people round her …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 114-115). This kind of detail may be passed over in a first reading; his words like a flashback are typical of Peter’s narrative style that paradoxically flashes forward as well.
These lines anticipate the famous “curtain line,” a telling detail that appears at the conclusion just as Clarissa comes through the door once more (MD 296). Pattern recognition offers an essential clue to the rhetorical significance of Peter’s narrative. The words verify the coming recognition scene, foretelling Clarissa’s reappearance, a formulaic convention that “transforms a story into a kind of game. That is, the story becomes a puzzle, of which the recognition scene is the solution”; in the recognition scene itself, “the action then normally returns to the beginning of the story and interprets it more truly than the previous account has done” (Frye Secular 130, 145; see also the Hellenist Peter Gainsford 41-59 and Aristotle Poetics 52a1-52b1). Ambiguity is typical of Peter’s mode.
Peter’s sway as a pedestrian through London often accompanies prescient associations. Marching up Whitehall, he had imaginatively considered his position “as if there rolled down to him, vigorous, unending, his future,” an image figured as a metaphorically eternal task, a search for meaning (MD 75). Playful works of fiction like Mrs Dalloway are notorious for making use of obscure mythology. Peter’s absurd future is expressed in the myth of Sisyphus whose punishment in the Underworld is to roll his stone like a ball perpetually up hill until it rolls down, compelling him to start over again from the beginning.
This identity is thematic to his part in the game in several ways. Yet his role as a Sisyphus-like raconteur is a fault he exercises through flashbacks; his is an unending story that finally comes full circle when Clarissa enters the narrative twice by coming through a door at the beginning and at the end as well. Ending a story by repeating its opening does not necessarily presuppose circularity, unless time actually moves in a straight line, but the repetitious search for meaning invites us to reread, round and round, a narrative that simply repeats (Alter 146). The structure Sisyphus provides corresponds with Clarissa’s stated desire for having her life over again. She and Peter seem to be playing the same game.
The methods of exploiting games in literature are many, but they usually are revealed in authorial play as an obscure parallel used for new purposes. When Peter signals a game, not merely indicating a secondary level of meaning, his play comes into light by way of preformed language, a famously Shakespearean practice whose allusions are buried in the context they serve, said the late scholar G. K. Hunter (57). Literary allusions with telling details may be playfully drawn when something “is removed from our habitual way of regarding things” (Hutchinson 37). Peter, too, is typically inclined to derive a parallel with older works of literature that may also appear in a similarly disguised form. The artifice in his narrative, ordering his world against a background of traditional imagery, maneuvers the reader to suspect a literary reference. Playing the literary game well is dependent upon each reader’s experience.
For example, from time to time, Peter Walsh is conscious of his age, now fifty-three, perhaps insecure of his manhood, his earlier feelings of youthfulness notwithstanding: “He had not felt so young in years” (MD 78). The concept in frame analysis applies here when “a set of conventions already meaningful in terms of some primary framework is transformed into something quite else” (Erving Goffman on frame analysis in the 1974 edition 43-44). Being insecure at fifty-three also comes in reference to Hugh Whitbread, said pejoratively to be the “perfect gentleman” with his “little job at court,” whom Peter will petition for a position “teaching little boys Latin” (MD 7, 112). As he is self-consciously described as “bookish,” he further gives the game away, in a matter-of-fact tone, with an easily overlooked telling detail illustrating how “bookish” he really is.
His phrase “teaching little boys Latin” invokes the literalized metaphor as the tenor of the Roman poet Horace, whose vehicle (metaphora from Latin, and metaphorá, Greek) transports the allusion into impersonation. He compares himself, by pastiche, to the first book of Horace’s Epistles (Epistle 20) regarding a formerly esteemed book descending from an elevated station unto prospecting for “trade” in the market, “feeding illiterate moths.” When it is left on the shelf with the beauty of its youth gone, it is, at last, used as a text-book for teaching children to read and write (MD 112). Peter similarly personifies himself as a work of literature, manifesting, as in Horace’s idiom, “the last career of babbling age” (trans. Jacob Fuchs). Allusion is always a form of play with its potential for reader mystification. “The more playful a literary work the more it shifts from everyday to alternative world contexts” (Waugh 37).
Ziva Ben-Porat subscribes to the usefulness of allusions that may “enhance and clarify thematic patterns” by appending “links to existing ones” with their “potential for reader mystification” (in Hutchinson 57-8). Ziva Ben-Porat further describes literary allusion as a “simultaneous activation of two texts,” or as Alter modifies it, “activating an earlier text as part of a new system of meaning and aesthetic value” (Alter 112). Peter’s bookish reputation, signaled by his inclusions borrowed from literature, is accentuated by Clarissa’s admission, “It was Peter who had helped her.” The great service to Mrs Dalloway that he provides is clear; from Theognis to Proust, Pope or Addison, it was “Peter who had lent her books” (MD 192). This ironic comment works as a reflexive aspect of play in itself.
Thus, allusions may generate new meanings through links derived from other texts whose contents may serve as merely disruptive devices. Peter’s absurdly phrased dream on the bench in Regent’s Park is one such, concluding, incongruously, with his landlady falling down the rabbit hole; as in the circular narrative of the equally oneiric Alice in Wonderland she too catches a jar of marmalade as she falls and puts it in the cupboard (MD 87).
The conclusion of Peter’s dream introduces a rhetorically nonsensical game with an allusion from Lewis Carroll having no discernible meaning other than, perhaps, alluding to a famous literary dream; the name game that frequently appears in literature often introduces a name of great aesthetic value. Other such spheres of play in Mrs Dalloway, also planted with deliberate meaning, concern the rhetorical device known as the redende Name (meaningful name) or the “cognomen syndrome” i.e. onomastics given as a reference to a social condition or a mode of thought; a famous example in literature, Miss Havisham in the Dickens novel Great Expectations validates the fact that she indeed is a sham. Some names may yet serve as “red herrings” that lay down a false scent, intended to be misleading or distracting to draw attention away from the central matter. If a character’s name offers some insight into his nature or corresponds to his or her possible function in the narrative, then nomenclature may serve as a valid clue; if not it may become a strategy of misdirection.
The onomastic game, self-consciously playing with names, often ludicrously fake according to Stonehill, by implying some role, however, often proves to be merely a scattering of false clues. “The degree of transparency in each case is dependent on the degree of adherence to realistic illusion” (Waugh 94). For instance, Dr. Holmes makes a poor detective; Miss Kilman is hardly homicidal. Professor Brierly might suggest some affiliation with Joseph Conrad rather than Milton. These names are misleading clues, “red herrings,” placed in the text as distractions inserted “to make us search for ‘meaning’ where none actually exists,” although falsehood implied from Ralph Lyon’s name seems relevant (Hutchinson 81). Whitbread’s brews and Bradshaw’s railway guides offer possible commercial associations, names of mock-significance indicating a pattern of deception and concealment through scattering spurious clues. Mrs Dalloway is never completely open, never transparent.
The importance of names at the opening of Clarissa’s party becomes a complex device when Mr. Wilkins, the hired butler, announces the names of the guests. Some are lords and ladies; others are old friends like Hugh Whitbread who also takes pride in seeing “his name at the end of letters to the Times”; Hugh considers mentioning the name of the unsuccessful Peter to “So-and-so,” a placeholder name, like Clarissa’s similar guest from South Kensington (MD 156, 162, 185). Since Peter introduced her through another placeholder name “Betty What’shername,” the annunciation of the former Sally Seton becomes unique: “What name? Lady Rosseter?” (MD 108, 260). Clarissa Dalloway, formerly Miss Parry, too, has commented on her own marital name, as a condition of her identity, as if she were “not even Clarissa anymore” (MD 14). On the other hand, the Prime Minister remains nameless although this personage is clearly Stanley Baldwin, a touch of reality, whom Peter identifies accurately and ironically through this official’s famously copious claims to be a “plain man” who looks “so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits” (MD 261).
Irrelevant personalities whose names have already appeared in the narrative have been called back into existence from Virginia Woolf’s earlier fictions like strategic bait: Mrs. Hilbery from Night and Day, Mr. Bowley, the Durrants of Jacob’s Room, the mother, Elizabeth and daughter, Clara, (a mirror reversal of the Dalloways), and finally the fictional Dalloways themselves. Some are little more than disembodied names, like Jim, Fred, Mrs. Marsham and Clara Haydon. Clarissa’s love interests, on the other hand, bear pseudo-aptronymic names, with references to anatomy – such as her husband currently known as Richard, formerly “Dick,” the name that appears in The Voyage Out where he demonstrates his propensity for wandering in the direction of women other than his own wife. It is particularly playful that Clarissa has forgotten Peter’s name, perhaps due to its similarly venereal connotations, just as Septimus forgets the name of Mrs. Peters, “Mrs. Filmer’s married daughter” (MD 59, 214). The highly important misnomer “Wickham” in the name-game will emerge as significant a name as “Warren” for linking various literary worlds.
According to Elizabeth Bruss, literary games self-consciously alert us to playfulness in several ways, one, by forbidden mergers of time and space or “violating the normal conditions of ludic activity”; and two, by “hyperbolic obedience” to the norm when the literary game includes spurious allusions or appears in an “overstated form.” Bruss resumes, “a third way of foregrounding play is to stress its relation to the unplayful, the ‘serious,’ and the ‘realistic’” (Bruss 157). The ludicrous resides next door to the serious. The suicide of Septimus Warren Smith meets this requirement in his violent death as he “flung himself vigorously, violently down onto Mrs. Filmer’s area railings” (MD 226).
The festivity of Clarissa’s party is displaced by the intervention of this event, completely free of playfulness, when Septimus serves as a realistic stand-in for the suicide of a “fallen woman”; Clarissa must be allowed her happy ending. His suicide, driven by his mental condition, meets the demands of the Victorian code of literary manners. The tension is augmented by the reciprocal conflict between the opposing theories of his therapists, Bradshaw the blocking force that would prevent the death vital to Clarissa’s salvation, and Holmes the enabler whose unforeseen arrival facilitates his death and obviates her own.
On the other hand, throughout the discourse, Septimus himself remains out of touch with reality as if replicating the conventional Shakespearean Fool, unwittingly wise, by “focusing on some odd detail” (MD 36, 280; Alter 232). He expresses the characteristic of vitality that Clarissa values: “He did not want to die” (MD 226). Sparrows have sung to him in Greek words of “how there is no death,” questionable counsel. As Bruss further comments, “literary games exhibit their discontinuities and unstabilize the vantage points on which realistic perspective depends” (Bruss 156-157). Play in Mrs Dalloway exploits similarities between Clarissa and Septimus, subtle but valid.
The case of Septimus Warren Smith reintroduces the onomastic game into the discourse. He and Clarissa remotely share the congruity of the name “Warren,” Clarissa by allusion to Mrs Warren’s Profession (MD 127). He was called “Bernard” in an early narrative, a name he has in common with G. B. Shaw. Similarly, each nourishes bittersweet memories of intimate friends “in league together,” as with Sally Seton, emulating Marlowe’s Helen of Troy, who famously launched a number of ships, the shade whose kiss might have made Clarissa immortal (MD 52-3; Christopher Marlowe Doctor Faustus 5.1). The corresponding shade for Septimus Smith is “Evans” and a recurrent memory of intimacy when his comrade-in-arms comes back in hallucinations. Sally merely returns as a guest at Clarissa’s party.
The iconography of birds in literature frequently appears among the symbolic roles as in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline which includes the crow, the eagle, the jay, lark, the owl, and most importantly, the mythical phoenix; Imogen is said to posses a mind so rare, she alone, like “th’Arabian bird” (i.e. uniquely excellent), resembles the phoenix that dies in flames and rises from her ashes, with the rising sun. The phoenix is the ornithological feature common to Clarissa and Septimus (Cym. 1.6.17; Simonds 198-238). The legendary phoenix is regarded as a symbol of resurrection, and spiritual rebirth and an allegorical figure for perfect female love as in Shakespeare’s dramatic poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” The words of the dirge, “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” words Clarissa reads among the books displayed in Hatchards’s window, quotes the dirge that marks the faux death of Imogen who is temporarily costumed as the young man Fidele, an emblem of her character, a princess in disguise,” (MD 13; Cym. 4.258). The prevailing theme of loss and recovery involves both her death and her revival.
The celebrated phoenix, among the Renaissance myths that give meaning to the comic heroism of the play as a pertinent ornithological feature in Cymbeline and, among related conventional imagery, echoes the birdlike resemblance common to both Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. Scrope Purvis has said that Clarissa Dalloway, perched on the kerb, bears “a touch of the bird about her” and “of the jay, blue green, light, vivacious” and she admits to a face “beaked like a bird” (MD 4, 14). The phoenix with a glorious crest of feathers on its head resembles Clarissa’s feathered hat she places on the bed. Septimus, too, “big-nosed,” has features that reinforce his obvious role as Clarissa’s “double,” a familiar metaphysical fiction in literature that often finds a home in Romance (MD 14; 126). To Rezia, his wife, he seems birdlike, resembling a young hawk (MD 222). True to his birdlike nature and “hopping indeed from foot to foot” on the windowsill he is like a bird about to take flight until he finally throws himself from the window to his death on the area railings (MD 226).
The birdlike characters in Mrs Dalloway share associations with fire as well; for Septimus the world seems about to burst into flames. “He would cry that he was falling down, down into the flames” (MD 21, 216). Rezia “would actually look for flames, it was so vivid.” Eventually he confesses the crimes for which he believes he is condemned to death, that “he had married his wife without loving her” and “he had not cared when Evans was killed; that was the worst” (MD 137). As if in anticipation of his death, the dirge returns to Septimus: “Feat no more, says the heart in the body, fear no more. He was not afraid” (MD 211). Similarly, Peter Walsh’s criticisms for her parties inspire Clarissa to claim, as she stands at her party, that she is drenched in fire. “Might it consume her anyhow! Burn her to cinders!” He had come merely to criticize. “It was extraordinary how Peter put her into these states just by coming and standing in a corner” (MD 255). Finally, the news of the death of a young man shocks her, such that her body went through it, phoenix-like: “Her dress flamed, her body burnt,” fulfilling her premonition that “she was to kindle and illuminate that very night” (MD 280, 6).
The logical role of this otherwise unrelated personality whom she never meets and who serves as her uncanny surrogate remains obscure until he falls to his death. She identifies herself with that young man. “Somehow it was her disaster, her disgrace”; there has been ample imagery to validate her sense of identity in the recognition scene: “She felt somehow very like him” (MD 283). Clarissa’s “double” has died in her place, redeemed her; now the sun is rising, recalling the revitalization of the immortal phoenix: “There it was––ashen pale.” The words of the dirge return to her mind but in a different sense, “Fear no more the heat of the sun”; they now allude to the revival of Imogen whose virtue has been questioned. Imogen, who like the phoenix “returns to life” as a woman, and still clothed in Fidele’s emblematic disguise embraces her beloved husband (Simonds 94). In a nonexistent narrative, according to Daniel Ferrer, Clarissa was to commit suicide, an arbitrary act presently undertaken on her behalf by her ostensible “double” Septimus Warren Smith who also had no prior existence (Woolf “Introduction” vi; Fernald 59; Ferrer 9). Because Clarissa’s flirtation with the words that identify her with Mrs. Warren’s folly have exposed her to the obligation incurred under the archetypal Victorian requirement for suicide, Septimus, her currently nameless surrogate, pays her debt as suggested in the Maupassant story Yvette, but for what?
Clarissa, alone in the little room, contemplates the death of the nameless man as if it were her own, in an unbidden recognition scene, without pity (MD 283; Aristotle Poetics 49b1). “She felt somehow very like him” (MD 283). She identifies herself with Septimus: “Somehow it was her disaster – her disgrace” (MD 282). She conceives of him convincingly as having thrown himself from a window; her impression seems quite authentic. “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” (MD 280). It was her punishment. Now Clarissa, penitent, examines her conscience and confesses her avowed foibles: “She had schemed; she had pilfered. She was never wholly admirable. She had wanted success. Lady Bexborough and the rest of it.” Clearly, Clarissa feels she has good reason to wish to have her life over again like the revenant phoenix and correct her faults. Presently her wish is granted––the theme of loss and renewal resumes. Crouching like a bird and gradually reviving, Clarissa who has admittedly “lost herself in the process of living” is prepared to begin again, to find her youth “with a shock of delight as the sun rose” (MD 281-282). Fearlessly manifesting that touch of the bird that characterizes her, Clarissa feels “she must go back” (MD 284) She had never been so happy.
Meanwhile, Peter Walsh and Sally Seton explore serious matters at the party (MD 284-296). An important clue in their conversation occurs when Sally recalls the name that was in play at a long ago afternoon gathering. Clarissa introduced Richard as “Wickham,” an infamous scoundrel; the odd misnomer, a telling detail of nomenclature, bears a secondary level of meaning, a coded message of thematic or allusive significance that continues as a serious issue revealed at the conclusion of the narrative.
The name originates with the man, named Wickham in Jane Austen’s Romance, Pride and Prejudice, who eloped with young Lydia. “The girl who spends her time cooing over lavish fabrics … always means trouble” (Kortsch 48). A Victorian woman who eloped would have acquired the social status of a “fallen woman.” Lydia is oblivious to the disgrace for the Bennet family reputation. Richard Dalloway disavows his association with the name “Wickham” saying, “My name is Dalloway”; Peter disregards the matter having forgotten Richard’s name (MD 88, 92).
Richard Dalloway promotes the appearance of circularity in the narrative when he returns to Clarissa after his luncheon with Lady Bruton. Nested within this passage of Mrs Dalloway a simpler version recycles Peter’s visit: “Who can–what can?”/ “Who at this hour?” The recursiveness of these similar scenes extends to the “slipping” of the brass knob, the door handle in both cases. Richard’s afternoon stopover also contains a retelling of Peter’s morning call (Hofstadter 127; MD 59; 178). During Richard’s moments with her, Clarissa reminds him how she might have married Peter (MD 163, 184). Richard echoes Clarissa’s thought, “Did she wish she had married Peter?” (MD 181). Clarissa, however, had her own thoughts on the subject of Richard. “Lunching with Lady Bruton … He has left me; I am alone forever” (MD 70).
Clarissa, whose June morning had passed with Peter Walsh, contemplated nostalgically the risqué possibility that she might have eloped, “run away, had lived with Peter”; having refused to marry him in those days she had felt “they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined” (MD 68, 71,10). “It came over her,” she adds, “if I had married him, this gaiety would have been mine all day”; yet she regrets having demurred, that Peter has called her “cold, heartless, a prude” (MD 70,10).
The sequence of hints playfully reveals and gradually supplies details for the benefit of the strategically disenfranchised reader. Much of it comes from Sally whose recollections concern Peter Walsh who meant so much to the youthful Clarissa Parry. The allusive significance of the name “Wickham” resounds throughout the narrative. Sally has recalled Richard in the “Wickham” context; she had repeated it until Clarissa had reprimanded her saying, “We’ve had enough of that feeble joke.” Peter takes this as if Clarissa had proclaimed, “I’ve an understanding with Richard Dalloway.”
The daring Sally had so far served as go-between for Peter, “sweeping him off for talks in the vegetable garden” (MD 95). “She implored him, half laughing of course, to carry off Clarissa, [ostensibly] to save her from … all the other ‘perfect gentlemen’ who would ‘stifle her soul … make a mere hostess of her,’” thus risking social denunciation (MD 114). “Carrying off Clarissa” suggests that they might elope, a questionable event in the eyes of society, with Sally heedless of what is and what is not proper behavior. It proposes a role for Peter who, however, is no “Wickham”; nevertheless Sally’s dramatic plan provides a detail that will make sense of what is yet to come.
The bond between Peter and Sally is due to Clarissa’s father, “that querulous, weak-kneed old man,” the obstructing humor “who disliked them both equally.” Sally’s game plan for running away is calculated to solve Peter’s dilemma; “old Parry,” as the Plautine senex iratus archetype, typically impedes the romance between his daughter and her lover (MD 90). “He never liked any one who –– our friends, said Clarissa; and could have bitten her tongue for thus reminding Peter that he had wanted to marry her.” Peter silently responds to Clarissa’s diplomatic aposiopesis; “Of course I did, thought Peter; it almost broke my heart too, he thought” (MD 62).
As Peter’s intimate friend, Sally performs her last service as marriage-broker, carrying a note to Clarissa with Peter’s enigmatic message arranging their rendezvous (MD 62). Clarissa knows that if she follows Sally’s mad idea, “they would have been destroyed” i.e. socially ruined, a consequence that Peter admits renders Clarissa “petrified,” punning on his own name (MD 10, 90, 97). Peter’s demand, “Tell me the truth,” a concept following the rhetoric of omission, fails in its purpose; clearly Clarissa, famously a prude, refuses him, and he never sees her again (MD 97).
Thus Clarissa avoids a fate introduced by Jane Austen, that she would end up like Lydia Bennet, yoked forever to the feckless Mr. Wickham. Yet it may serve as a clue for another part of the narrative. Some authors such as Austen want readers “to penetrate the façade in order to recognize all the implications of their text” (Hutchinson 22). Although omission implies that calling Richard Dalloway by the name “Wickham” is temporarily of little importance, this device illustrates the affinity between play and mystery, holding back full knowledge until the last. The name suggests a parallel plot that functions as a comment on the main story in Mrs Dalloway and the stakes involved in this situation, a secret lurking beneath the words that will not be revealed until the narrator deems it relevant.
Clarissa maintains a high regard for Richard and his “adorable, divine simplicity” (MD 182). For himself, Richard admits that he had been jealous of Peter Walsh; reassuringly, Clarissa “had often said to him that she had been right not to marry Peter Walsh” (MD 176-177). The matter of who married whom reappears playfully among Richard, Clarissa and Peter, nagging them throughout the day of the party as they comfort themselves at intervals regarding the matter that presumably has been settled long ago. A subtle hint of discord appears when Richard’s plans for lunching with Lady Bruton were announced; the invitation omits Clarissa. She is shocked but thinks, “No vulgar jealousy could separate her from Richard” (MD 44). The seemingly unwarranted shock persists, the repetitions indicating that the issue is plaguing her thoughts. The reader, perhaps, will recall Richard’s proclivities and the kiss he gave to Rachel Vinrace while aboard the Euphrosyne in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. The misnomer, Wickham, has received some validation associated with Richard’s character.
Thus far, the account of the past has consisted of concealment, suppression, and a scattering of false clues that leave many things unexplained. Equally enigmatic issues will appear under the urbane influence of Sally Seton with Peter Walsh who has come back from the past. In the final chapter they await Clarissa’s return after her isolation in the little room. This section, the endgame, seems anticlimactic contrasted with the suicide that Clarissa is contemplating concurrently. Their conversation is cleverly dotted with telling details, seeming unstudied chitchat about the party.
Sally inquires regarding the names of various guests, “Who is this?” (Mrs. Hilbery looking for the door), and “Who was that?” (Ellie Henderson, a cousin, very poor). “Who was he talking to?” Her query refers to Richard and to Sir William Bradshaw who has just arrived (MD 290-293). Her apparently irrelevant questions resume her former emulation of Helen, here querying Priam in the Teichoscopia from the Iliad, a device introducing the familiar names of the Greek heroes, from the ramparts of Troy (Homer Iliad 3.121-244; see also Proust RTP II 697-698).
This logical sequence of interrogation introduces the question of Clarissa’s marriage. “Between question and answer there is a whole dilatory area whose emblem might be named reticence” (Roland Barthes S/Z 75). This section of the narrative demonstrates the game of literature at its most intense. “Some readers … may get no signal at all from such microscopic markers, which nevertheless make sense in their own right in context” (Alter 121). A carefully veiled secret separates the consumers of the text from the producers when becoming the producer is the reader’s preferred goal according to Roland Barthes (S/Z 4). Barthes discusses the “hermeneutic code” that analyzes the “enigma,” or elements that the narrative has not explained, “by which an enigma can be distinguished, suggested, formulated, held in suspense, and finally disclosed” (S/Z 19).
The enigmatic conversation between Peter and Sally exists as the last gambit of Mrs Dalloway; recognition that a game is in progress is essential to grasping the point of their discourse. With its telling details immersed in the rhetoric of omission after the fashion of Jane Austen who “stimulates us to supply what is not there,” the suppression of the enigma at its heart systematically obscures the purpose of the extended intercourse between Peter and Sally (Woolf Common Reader 138). Their conversation resolves a few important issues as they chat, seemingly gossiping about the past, yet indirectly generating information about matters remaining unclear.
Barthes’s hermeneutic “morphemes” structure the enigma while it sets up “delays … in the flow of the discourse” (S/Z 75). Hoping to arrest the enigma, hold it in suspense, “this design brings narrative very close to the rite of initiation (a long path marked with pitfalls, obscurities, stops, [that] suddenly comes out into the light)” (S/Z 76). The blanks in the dialogue challenge the reader to distinguish between revelation and concealment, between the seeming meaninglessness given in the text and the ambiguities offered through terms set by the game.
Following this design, Sally exploits the speculative formulation of her recollections reminding Peter, musing among the vegetables, that “she had marched him up and down that awful night”; she presumably remembers the leaves of cabbages or cauliflowers in the moonlight, when she implored him to “carry off Clarissa” (MD 114, 285). This detail, a massive exhibition of concealment, are coupled with the references to the name Wickham that have been openly flaunted. “There was that dreadful, ridiculous scene over Richard Dalloway at lunch,” as she recalls (MD 285). This reiterates “a key allusion to the work … a recurrent thread in the formal design,” a playful consonance with the entire plan, and the affinity between play and mystery that arises between the events from the past and their effect upon the present (Alter 127, 128).
Sally’s recollection characterizes the scene when Clarissa had introduced Richard by the egregious name “Wickham”; focusing on the name, she questions the reasonableness of the appellation, “why not call Richard “Wickham”? (MD 92, 285). This final mention emphasizes the series of hidden connotations regarding nomenclature as a clue to information they possess relating to the significance of questions demanding explication. It is Richard, after all, not Peter, who bears the sobriquet. “The problem is to maintain the enigma in the initial void of its answer” according to Roland Barthes (S/Z 75).
Unknown to the reader, this becomes very nearly a snare. Sally equivocates, asking rhetorically, “And the marriage had been, Sally supposed, a success?” as if she anticipates a negative reply. Further, suggesting the marriage may have been inadvisable, Sally arrests the disclosure of facts, changes the focus by deploring the possibility that Clarissa had compromised herself: “How could Clarissa have done it?”; she implies some impropriety of judgment (MD 287, 288). She is unclear about what “it” is that Clarissa did.
Peter offers a partial agreement, saying, “it had been a silly thing to do, in many ways … to marry like that,” ambiguous phraseology that exacerbates expectations of whatever the unstated truth may be (MD 260, 289). Similarly, he suspends a disclosure of what he means by the phrase for marriage “like that,” a matter temporarily unspecified but behavior, possibly disreputable, which risks social denunciation and the requirement for a concluding Victorian rubric such as suicide (MD 289).
Sally “jams” the thought with another ambiguous query, asking herself if he mentions this telling detail “out of pride,” as if the insoluble matter is contingent on Peter’s feelings entirely (MD 289). Resolution of the enigma will not take place without the creative reader’s ability to deduce the truth drawn from these playfully developed conventions of evasion. The secrets have been “reserved for a select, privileged and circumspect readership” (Hutchinson 42). In fact, the mystery posed by much of the dialogue will not be resolved if the fact that the game being played remains undetected. Peter’s role in the mystery assumes the character of gossip. The clues, disguised as prattle, pertain to details to be weighed, interspersed among distracting trivialities.
Peter’s insidious euphemism, marrying “like that,” is coupled with Sally’s notion that Peter “carry her off”; with the possibility of Peter’s bookish “pride” as a factor, there is constructed “an interpolated narrative, a ‘parallel’ plot strand in which actions of one strand bear a relationship to those of the other” (Hutchinson 52). The connotation is that Mrs Dalloway, with the armature of Peter’s pride, becomes an oblique homage to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The long and the short of this buried secret is that Clarissa, like Lydia Bennet, seems to have eloped with Richard, the fickle Mr. Wickham, perhaps acquiring the identity of a fallen woman.
With the party now coming to an end, Clarissa thematically repeats her obligation to return; as hostess she must go back, “she must find Sally and Peter” (MD 280, 283, 284). Having come through the door once as a woman at Westminster and simultaneously as a girl of eighteen at Bourton, she comes through the door from the little room. Peter, as before, is ecstatic, “for there she was” (MD 3, 284).
She may have lost herself in the process of living, having done with the triumphs of youth, but her life is literally found again validating Mrs. Hilbery: “But she was a magician” (MD 282, 291). Clarissa’s reappearance to her friends is evocative of Shakespeare’s Imogen bearing the iconographic implications of the androgynous “phoenix,” a bird-like woman remarkably resurrected, as Peggy Simonds says on Cymbeline; and she effectively joins her beginning to her end in the circular narrative enabling her to have her life over again (Simonds 235). “Her dress flamed, her body burnt”– Like the fabled phoenix, Clarissa rises from her own ashes and, as expressed in Septimus Warren Smith’s mad utterance, for her there is no death.
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