Reading Virginia Woolf's novel



The Attic Room, and others


And now good-morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room an everywhere.

“The Good-Morrow” John Donne


The area in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which is humbly designated as a “room” rather than as a “chamber” or “apartment” is a familiar component of some of the best-known works of Virginia Woolf. For example, in Jacob’s Room the term becomes a metaphor for biography or a narrative of character study which, in Jacob’s case, describes a void in the place of the central character. The essay, A Room of One’s Own, most famously deploys the room itself as a state of autonomy, a private space for one’s independence and creative freedom. In addition to these, the room becomes an important site of the uncanny in Mrs Dalloway.

In the cyclic traditions of religious imagery, entering rooms through doorways and crossing thresholds, going from one room to another, implies an initiation; modern initiations, like ancient rites according to Francis Cornford, “reflect recurrent ritual practices” often celebrated around the season of carnival or “as near as can be managed to the summer solstice” (Cornford “Origins of the Olympic Games” Themis 217, 226). Entrance to a room of such significance simply by opening a door and crossing a threshold often represents a sacred point of introduction to a rite of passage. Judy Little uses the term “liminality” for threshold occasions “marked by ordeal or celebration” which “bring the individual to a ‘rebirth’ and a new identity within the social structure” (Little 2, 6). Such archetypes of transformation include passing from room to room as if from an old into a new life. Simply crossing a threshold, according to C. Ruth Miller, may suggest transiting to a point at which an ignominious end becomes an auspicious beginning (Hoff Invisible 111). Thus, in antiquity, a misstep on a threshold (“once you stumble” – MD 139) constitutes an evil omen. Such apparently innocent terminology as “room” and “threshold” intentionally “functions as a highly specialized language act” (Cohen 78).

Meanings associated with rooms, in the discourse of initiations, derive from the influence of socially constructed assumptions in practicing such ritual traditions. The emphasis on the artistic expression of initiations which appear in Mrs Dalloway originates, largely, in context with Jane Ellen Harrison, contemporary classical scholar and Woolf acquaintance. The psychology of ritual, even in secular discourse, is clarified in her many writings on ancient religion. As she has observed, “The leap from real life to the emotional contemplation of life cut loose from action would otherwise be too wide. Nature abhors a leap, she prefers to crawl over the ritual bridge” (Harrison Ancient Art and Ritual 136). 

Yet, as Virginia Woolf was to explain, crossing this narrow bridge of art calls for renunciation of ordinary tools of study, although doors and thresholds remain prominent as instrumental concepts associated with ritual (Woolf “Narrow Bridge of Art” 22). Doors as sacred entrance-ways typically may offer the beginning of an uncanny ritual context (Hoff “Coming of Age” 237). All such situations, however, are ambiguous according to Harrison when such transition points merely suggest that things might be merely different on the other side. Clarissa Dalloway’s home, prepared for her party with its doors off the hinges, facilitates such ritual passages within the conceptual world which this novel presents. In Clarissa’s world, a candidate for initiation in the passing to another social state, may find that the opening of a door serves as a trope for a process leading him or her to a new level of existence as a type of “rebirth” just as when “he is born, initiated, or born again; he is married, grows old, dies, is buried, and the old, old story is told again next year” (Harrison Ancient 111, 140).

  The ritualism in everyday life is conspicuous among the London socialites. Clarissa, presiding at such social “initiations,” is able “to take some raw youth, twist him, turn him, wake him up; set him going” like a mechanical toy, according to Peter Walsh. He hopes she will service Daisy as well, “be nice to [her], introduce her” (MD 116, 240). Hugh Whitbread is similarly an adept on behalf of the olive-skinned youth whom he would “patronize, initiate, teach how to get on” (MD 263). Unlike such superficially ritualistic practices, ancient rituals of crossing spiritual thresholds, however, serve “to summon the spirit of life” (Harrison Ancient 138); such contexts are suggested as when Clarissa herself enters the novel with a thematic plunge across a double threshold, from Innocence at Bourton to Experience at Westminster (MD 3). Her narrative is fulfilled after she has disappeared from her party into a private room for an extended meditation until finally, crossing the last threshold, she comes back from this mysterious little room.

In Mrs Dalloway, the discourse incorporates entrance to a room as a signal for existential monologues, a room usually assumed to be the traditional site of mystical events or such places of similar spiritual significance.  Such rooms, those which are said to invoke Virginia Woolf’s  “favorite symbol for the personality,” connote places which, in such cases, often represent a metaphorical state of mind, or an inner state of being as well (Richter 213 and note 52). Furthermore, entering one’s chamber often tropes the introspection topos, examining one’s inward state, the room being a term of art. The sense of a room treated in its many presentations of self-consciousness found in the literature of Modernism is characteristic of introverted novels such as Mrs Dalloway (Bradbury394).

Several occasions in Mrs Dalloway record the functioning of a room as a ritual site for some significant occasion coupled with the various contexts which may be peculiarly relative to each situation. The room in all its symbolic forms contributes to developing the texture of assorted characters, their behaviors, or their sensibilities, much as “a small room is enlarged by mirrors in odd corners” (Woolf Common Reader 31). Virtually every personality in this novel is affected by nuances relative to some room which offers itself as a platform for displaying them. For example, among them there are the physician’s waiting room, the hostess’s drawing room, and even being “mewed” with Miss Kilman in a stuffy bedroom apparently of little significance. Of all the recurring features in Mrs Dalloway, the concept of the room is among those most redundant. There is Lady Bruton’s alcove, the little room for her little project, and the room where she snores, dreaming of Devonshire, typical of the incidental example (MD 160). For Peter Walsh the past is associated randomly with “some room … bathed in yellow light” (MD 88). Others bear greater significances. When Septimus Smith opens the door to the room in Milan where women are making hats he enters upon the room in which he, the soldier, first encounters his future wife following which his life takes a serious turn; the event incorporates, further, his invasion of the privacy of a women’s room, an ominous motif (MD 131). Following their marriage when the war is over and they have circled back to London, he finds that much for him has changed. 

In his former career working under Mr. Brewer at Muswell Hill, a particular room represents an omen relative to success in his state in life; he had been expected to succeed to the inner room under the skylight of his employer’s office which projects professional achievement. He is finally seen, unfortunately, under the skylight in the grey room of the therapist, Sir William Bradshaw, instead  (MD 129, 153). Clarissa, who never meets Septimus Smith, has known Sir William in the past in whose waiting room she had seen a “poor wretch sobbing” reminiscent of Septimus often seen with tears running down his cheeks; “What a relief to get out to the street again” (MD 31, 278). It is Septimus Smith, presumably, who has been first glimpsed watching the circling sky-writer as “tears ran down his cheeks”; his melancholy and Peter Walsh’s sudden burst of weeping in Clarissa’s drawing-room  have earned for Virginia Woolf the pejorative myth of literary lachrymosity (MD 31, 69).

The map of London Streets, a labyrinth of metaphoric rooms, is reconnoitered introspectively by Elizabeth Dalloway, Clarissa’s daughter, on the threshold of adult life, as if she were off on a voyage of discovery; her experience, which resembles exploring a strange house, is equally relevant to her youthful quest for fulfillment. These rooms illustrating her intrepid passage into the City reflect her considerations on professional possibilities, whether as a farmer or a doctor, as her thoughts carry her from room to room (MD 206, 208).  She reflectively enters the various rooms, like passing through spiritual doorways, “which might be bedroom doors, or sitting-room doors, or lead straight to the larder”: the ritual emphasis rests on “pattern rather than plot,” the analysis of her introspection on “an exploration both of the aesthetics of consciousness and the aesthetics of art” (Bradbury and Fletcher “The Introverted Novel” 408-409). Her narrative framed as an inward adventure, Elizabeth demonstrates her youthful willingness to contemplate the future.

Her mother Clarissa Dalloway, on the other hand, retiring to her attic room, senses that her own life is dwindling away as she grows older, “a little skimpy” compared with threshold experiences in the days of her youth; in the past, according to Peter Walsh, “she filled the room she entered” (MD 8, 44). In her shopping trip for the flowers for her party she has temporarily pondered “the nice boys” killed in the War; she contemplates the chance that she herself might “cease completely” or somehow survive, among the untoward consequences of human mortality, a returning motif (MD 12).  In Piccadilly, however, she reads, by chance, a mysteriously oracular text in Hatchards’ bookstore window, poetic obsequies sung over the body of an apparently dead young man/woman in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/ nor the furious winter’s rages” (Cymbeline 4.2.329-346; MD 13);  this reference is typical of Virginia Woolf’s continuing dialogue with many fictional forms in this novel. Here the quote takes the shape of a seemingly arbitrary glance at its words which will be repeated at intervals as highly relevant to Clarissa’s introspective thoughts on mortality. This semi-legendary drama, with its prototypical plots of loss and recovery, life and death, fidelity and betrayal, stands as a particularly parallel example of ritual themes highly consonant with similar themes in Mrs Dalloway. Accordingly, Imogen, the heroine of Cymbeline whose marital fidelity has been questioned, is a woman protecting herself through transvestite disguise as the boy Fidele (“faithful”), ironically as personified Fidelity; as the dirge is sung, for she is thought dead, she is about to awaken from the simulated sleep of death as if he/she were coming back to life, an important motif in terms of initiations; she is not dead after all. “Why, [s/he] but sleeps!” (Shakespeare Cymbeline 4.2.215).

The salient concept dramatized by Imogen in this quotation passes so quickly as to be hardly noticed. Here, Shakespeare has transcoded a familiar archetype of ritual transformation common in many religious contexts which invokes the cycle of birth, death and rebirth through circumstances ostensibly transpiring within a pre-Christian Celtic culture. Awakening from a deathlike sleep to new life configures imagery familiar in many theologies. Rebirth implies renewal of life via an intervening death resulting from the demise of the old one. Birth and rebirth as well occur as a simulated escape from a cavelike interior, a room such as that in which Imogen/ Fidele hides. The consolation for enduring this ritual ordeal of personal reinvention is that “some falls are means the happier to arise” (Cymbeline 4.2.485). All may be construed as significant for Clarissa.

The analogy between sleep and death in Mrs Dalloway becomes a primitive theme expressed by the would-be mourners for Imogen, who is prefigured as a phoenix risen from its own ashes, the beneficiary of a symbolic resurrection: “She alone th’ Arabian bird [ i.e. the phoenix],” according to Jachimo (Cymbeline 1.6.17). Imogen’s somber scenario introduces a pantomime of awakening from death that is to become thereafter a solace for Clarissa, not as aloof commentary but rather as a complex reference to her in particular; the familiar words of the dirge, “Fear no more,” in its abbreviated form, emerge from time to time throughout the novel in similar circumstances of respite in which “sleeping” is troped as a release from suffering (Cymbeline 4.2.258). An ambiguous phrase, “Fear no more,” may serve equally well as an exhortation for endurance in the face of the trials of daily life. The enigmatic significance of this chance perception in Hatchards’ bookstore window appears intermittently as the narrative continues; Woolf herself  has observed that in that time of  superstitions it is natural for Elizabethan drama to fill itself with mystery, “reinforced by something which we cannot explain so simply” (Woolf “Narrow” 14). Thus, thinking more in terms of mortality than war, Clarissa is reminded of the casualty John, Lady Bexborough’s  son (MD 5, 13).

Responding to the lines of Shakespeare’s poetry relative to herself and her own worldly tasks, Clarissa speculates without coming to a decision, “Did it matter… that she must inevitably cease completely; did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?” (MD 12). Death is unpleasant to contemplate yet for Clarissa, a lingering presence like a mist is potentially comforting. Sigmund Freud, in his essay “The Uncanny” among his papers published by the Woolfs at the Hogarth Press, reminds us that “biology has not been able to decide whether death is the inevitable fate of every living being or whether it is only a regular but yet perhaps avoidable event in life”; he continues, commenting that “religions continue … to postulate a life after death” (Freud 149). The religious tone of Clarissa’s thoughts resembles the state of mind anticipating a funeral rite, except that, as the scholar Jane Ellen Harrison has said of rituals, it is rather “an impulse which is directed primarily to one end and one end only, the conservation and promotion of life” (Harrison Epilegomena “Preface” xvii; emphasis in original). As further summarized by Francis Cornford, her associate, such initiation ordeals concern “the restoration of life” as “the central core of the rite itself” (Cornford “Origins” in Themis 245).

Clarissa speculates on the impossible hope that somehow she might survive her own death, even in an altered state, “part of people she had never met” (MD 12). The “white dawn” she wishes to recover suggests a carpe diem context that, since death has been troped as a type of initiation in the mock-serious seduction poem (one of his “Lesbia” poems) by the Roman poet Catullus (54-84 bc), “Suns can set and rise again;/ For us, once our brief light has set,/ There’s one unending night for sleeping” (MD 12; Catullus 5). Clarissa’s apparent inconsistency regarding the consolations of death rather ironizes her involuntary memory, associated with death and the companionship of her friend Sally Seton: “She is beneath this roof” (MD 51). Sally has the effect of making her  “going cold with excitement” as with Othello who puns on death as the conventional term for the act of love in anticipation of the consummation of his recent marriage with Desdemona saying, “if it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy” (Shakespeare Othello 2.1. 189-190). “The doctors say it shortens life; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to ‘die’ means to experience the consummation of the act of love”  (Lewis 156; Brooks 182). Hamlet, too, puns on the “consummation devoutly to be wished” in his famous soliloquy. The plot structure of Othello, eventually, parallels that of Cymbeline in matters of women’s fidelity. 

Currently, in her introspective mood, Clarissa, at last, expresses an impossible expectation for an awakening similar to Imogen’s “recovery”, in the language of paradox. She nourishes the fantasy of human immortality, which, according to Epicurus is an unnatural desire, born of an unreasonable fear of death: “Oh if she could have had her life over again,” even looking different; the seemingly idle words express the exact wishes of the heroine’s aspiration in George Bernard Shaw’s risqué comedy, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a world-class Madam (MD 14; Hoff Invisible 41). Whether she merely exaggerates or utters her wish in jest, the novel derives its power from this paradoxical wish by connotation as well as denotation. This desire, presumably not a serious hope, simply suggests that, in the event of her death, she would have to do it all over again. Anyway, by the time her party has begun she has forgotten what she looked like (MD 259).

Clarissa’s meditations oscillate between death and sex, “the former the great unknowable and the latter the great unmentionable,” each continually attracting and repelling the narrative trajectory (Parker 39). In this richly organized pattern, sex is represented through euphemisms (figural displacements) and death by structural deferral (circularity), each a “climax” in its own way, omitting “the very thing that all the pother is about” (Parker; Morris 211; Lewis 158).

Clarissa has expressed thoughts concerning existence or non-existence, whether living or dying is better, as she walks across the Park: “Did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely … But that somehow in the streets of London … she survived” (MD 12). Clarissa’s surprising allusion is not unlike that in Joyce’s Ulyssses,  “Stephen’s vivisection of Hamlet” (phraseology from James Heffernan); her soliloquy regarding the relative value between life and death resembles the meditations of Shakespeare’s “melancholy Dane,” in his semi-legendary drama. His ghostly father has ostensibly awakened to life, exploiting Hamlet’s metaphor dramatized in Cymbeline as “that sleep of death” (Shakespeare Hamlet 3.1.65). Similarly following an internal debate on whether it is better to be alive or to be dead, in reflection, the Prince of Denmark concludes that cowardice activating “the dread of something after death … makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of” (Hamlet 3.1.77 and 80-81). This contradicts the opinion that Hamlet is contemplating suicide; others agree he is merely contemplating the advantages versus the disadvantages of death, “his questioning not of his own personal lot alone but of the state and being of all human life” (Woolf “Narrow Bridge of Art” 19).  On the other hand, the inevitability of death reminds us of Alkmeon’s less philosophical opinion, that men die simply because they cannot join the beginning to the end which will be Clarissa’s ultimate solution to her predicament (Kermode 4).

It is said, according to Anne Fernald, that Woolf in Mrs Dalloway “deploys allusions to Shakespeare like a master”; “both Clarissa and Septimus reveal in a great part of their thought a Hamlet-like death brooding bent” (Samuelson 62). The allusions which connect the narrative of Septimus Smith with Hamlet are subtle. For example, he is “aged about thirty” like Hamlet himself (MD 20; Bradley 92, 102, 339). The most arcane allusion occurs, however, when his wife, Rezia, notes the horses “with bristles of straw in their tails” (MD 125; Hoff 139) which is reminiscent of the Gesta Danorum , the Ur-Hamlet of Saxo Grammaticus (1150-1220), in which Hamlet (Amleth) receives a signal of imminent danger by way of a gadfly (horsefly) “with a stalk of chaff clinging to its rear end” (Ahl 297). Ben Jonson cleverly links both allusions with “a vault from…an excellent garret window…with a straw in your arse” (Epicoene 2.1). (See also Kermode Riverside Shakespeare 1136-7.) For Septimus there is no gadfly.

Unlike Clarissa whose concern is for life, Septimus Smith, the war veteran of the subplot, is preoccupied with death, his own, which is often expressed in various examples of Shakespeare’s preformed language, because “human nature had condemned him to death” (MD 137-138). Like Coleridge, it seems, he has “a smack of Hamlet” (“Table Talk”; see T. S. Eliot The Sacred Wood “Hamlet” 95). Septimus resumes the allusion to Hamlet begun by Clarissa. His apprehension, the whips and scorns of time, even a ritual flagellation among the punishments which all flesh is heir to, inspires his despairing rhetorical question.  “The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?” he asks, reminiscent of Hamlet’s defense, “use every man after his desert and who shall ‘scape whipping” (MD 20; Hamlet 3.2.529). (Hamlet, who has appeared in short comments elsewhere in Virginia Woolf, Night and Day and Jacob’s Room, now returns with greater detail.) Furthermore, rather than simply dying, “he had threatened to kill himself----to throw himself under a cart.” Forecasting that he and his wife would kill themselves, Septimus fixates on a passing train, a touch pilfered from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina who throws herself under a train, an example of Woolf’s dialogue with literature (MD 35, 100).

He is now to be hospitalized, for as his wife explains, “It is because you talked of killing yourself” (MD 223). He, unlike Clarissa, nourishes no desire to have his life over. Furthermore, his wife, Rezia, seems quite insensitive to his mourning the death of his particular friend Evans killed in the War, “that little shindy of schoolboys with gunpowder.” She even counsels that “such things happen to every one. Every one has friends who were killed in the War”, a lack of sympathy similarly expressed by the queen in  Hamlet  (MD 99). The prince, icon of filial grief, replies ironically, “Aye, madam, it is common” (Hamlet 1.2.74). Septimus, not in his perfect mind, genuinely maddened from, perhaps, survivor’s guilt, clearly shares his aberrant perceptions with Hamlet’s “distracted globe.” The madness of Hamlet, however, is viewed as merely pretended; that which Septimus exhibits is perfectly genuine. Hamlet who seems to debate his choices alternating between life and death resembles Clarissa in her ambivalence. Septimus, however, paraphrases the famous soliloquy expressed by Shakespeare’s hero who has only appeared to debate his suicide, briefly resolving Hamlet’s questioning of being or not being, “In short, this living or not living is an affair of our own” (MD 153-154). Like  Hamlet,  Septimus well knows of that country from whose bourn no traveler normally returns.

Further parallels from Hamlet involve the hallucinations which Septimus experiences with himself “talking to a dead man,” as if staged in “a world peopled with spirits, demons and ghosts, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet” (MD 98; Freud 136, 154-155). For audiences, “the ghostly apparitions in Hamlet … may be gloomy and terrible enough, but they are no more really uncanny than Homer’s jovial world of gods,” although it would be in real life, according to Freud (in “The Uncanny” 158-159). For Septimus the presumed ghost of the suddenly revenant Evans is as uncanny as the recurring apparitions of Hamlet’s dead father. Septimus hallucinates Evans behind a tree, analogous to Hamlet’s ghost in the cellarage, Evans singing among the orchids. He mistakes the appearance of Peter Walsh in Regent’s Park as a manifestation of Evans: “A man in grey was actually walking towards them … It was Evans”; Septimus cried out, “For God’s sake don’t come,” while birds sing in Greek words about the dead who walk beyond the river Styx. “Evans was behind the railings,” a manifestation as real as Achilles’s dream/vision of the dead Patroclus (MD 105, 36; Homer Iliad 23.68). His symptoms have obviously worsened when they finally include Evans as hallucinated in his bedroom behind the screen. Hamlet’s ghost, an Elizabethan “reality,” is visible to others whereas only Septimus sees Evans’s apparitions.  Evans, it seems, is a ghost that has come back (MD 212).

  Clarissa’s aspiration, to come back, having her life over again, is a wish which introduces a recurring pattern of “coming back,” in so many words. It takes various shapes for the lovelorn Peter Walsh and Clarissa who typically find themselves looking back (MD 50, 232). Memories, for Clarissa, “came back in the middle of St. James Park” (MD 9). Clarissa kept coming back in Peter’s somewhat fermented memory even after he questions her going back like this to the past. “Why make him think of it again? Why make him suffer when she had tortured him so infernally?” (MD 63). “There was a mystery about it” (their youthful affair) … “horribly painful often as not,” diction which suggests an initiation (MD 232).  Still, unable to forget the anguish of their youth he recalls, repeatedly, that as now “she kept coming back and back like a sleeper jolting against him in a railway carriage” (MD 115). He remembers, also, that when their relationship ended at last, “she never came back” (MD 97).

Now, having recalled that Peter might come back from India soon, Clarissa has cherished his good opinion. “What would he think, she wondered, when he came back? That she had grown older?” (MD 54). Clarissa, “a single figure against the appalling night,” reflects histrionically that, having “gone up into the tower alone,” she has left below almost everyone she knows, herself feeling “shrivelled, aged, breastless” (MD 45). Clarissa, “going slowly upstairs,” while nourishing umbrage because Lady Bruton has not invited her to her luncheon, rehearses important themes as she comments prophetically on having shut the door, and pausing at the staircase window, imagines it all suggestively, “as if she had left a party” (MD 45, 55, 178). She resorts at last to her allegorical “attic room” which oddly embeds a classical atmosphere, unless we are willing to believe that she really sleeps in the attic of her Westminster home (MD 70, 45). The attic room, unlike the reappearing window, introduces highly specialized language which may be inaccessible to those readers approaching from differently structured conceptual worlds. Clarissa’s attic room so designated implies matters which may be related to ancient Greece, its chief town Eleusis, and those issues dealing with an “Attic” frame of mind. Yet Peter Walsh, an important reflector in this context, remembers her ability instead to stand above her surroundings, to make “a world of her own,” even among numbers of people, when “she came into a room” (MD 114-115). The important question of the nature of her attic room remains open for some time, whereas eventually, there is the little room of a later context from which she will come back.

The expression  “attic room” is rhetorically ambiguous, its meaning perhaps alluding to matters relating to Attica of ancient Greece, anything Greek, specifically the Athenian state and the bulk of classical Greek literature written in the dialect of Attic Greek. According to the scholar Francis Cornford, such literature is characterized by elegant wit clearly observable in the plays of Shakespeare which are derived from ritual drama common to both tragedy and comedy; in the mock death and resurrection of the victim, as in Cymbeline, “a pretence is made of killing …  in order that [he] may be born again” like Euripides’s Alcestis who came back from death (Cornford “Origins” Themis 245). According to Cornford the comedians learned the techniques of plot construction from the tragedians of Attica as highly specialized language acts.

Clarissa’s Attic room suggests the elegant expressiveness predominating in Mrs Dalloway, remarkable among ordinary rooms where people casually enter and exit. Such a room of ritual connotations is implied when Peter Walsh would visit an old retainer, a former nurse at Bourton, Clarissa’s childhood home. The woman occupies an Attic room of her own with lots of photographs; her own little room  ”reflects the very enigmatic room in the novel, the room where Clarissa [might] accomplish her aspiration to have her life over again” (Hoff Invisible 99).

Peter, oddly admitting he is “moody” himself recalls her, “an old nurse, old Moody, old Goody, some such name they called her, whom one was taken to visit in a little room with lots of photographs” (MD 240, 91); this is a clever reference to the scholar P.B. Mudie Cooke in relation to this old retainer, who is at first introduced as a cook in “The Hours,” as the “Ur-Dalloway” (Wussow 33). As Ruth Miller has it, “the key to the necessary perspective [is placed] in an obvious detail of the narrative, hidden by its conspicuousness” (C. Ruth Miller 74). Mudie Cooke  had published an illustrated scholarly essay in 1913 on a mysterious ancient room (yes, another room) which had been buried under the debris from the eruption of Vesuvius, and rediscovered among excavations at Pompeii; it is decorated with a montage of the colorful frescoes of a woman’s ritual for which the room is famous, as if they were “lots of photographs.” The frescoes of Pompeiian red apparently include a “mystery,” as Peter’s words suggest, “some sacred ceremony to interrupt which would have been impious” (MD 248). Understood to be an initiation chamber of some kind, its ritual details have not yet been revealed. It is perhaps a sacred marriage which is known to have been celebrated in Attica and appears to be a women’s rite which is traditionally closed to men. According to Mudie Cooke, at this time it had not yet received the attention in England “which its importance warrants” (Mudie Cooke 159).

In the building now known as the Villa of the Mysteries these mural paintings apparently depict a coming-of-age ritual or some mystery rite based on the Mysteries of Eleusis which typically incorporate “a meaning of personal regeneration” (Little 18). These paintings have been given much close study; most scholars are in agreement that there is “a mystery about it” which is explicated by Miss Mudie Cooke (Hoff “Coming of Age” 95-121; MD 232). The room where “Old Moody” presides remains her sanctuary which, like the room in Pompeii, has not received the critical attention it merits. Modern scholarship has now studied the Pompeiian room very carefully; at the time of Mrs Dalloway, however, its archeological significance remains as merely a room of ancient religious rites, perhaps related to those practiced at Eleusis, the ritual center maintained for Demeter (Cooke 161). The room where Old Moody resides must be seriously regarded as an allusion to such an Attic ritual.

This room contains the montage of women in various activities, (one of which seems most prominently to be a ritual flagellation), with “young people slowly circling” as Peter has it; it does not signify “a test of endurance, but [rather] purification … especially appropriate at initiation ceremonies, such as we may take the present scene to represent” (MD 248; Mudie Cooke 161, 165). According to Jane Harrison, however, initiations were in part such rites in which a ritual of flagellation or “the death of the novice is almost always simulated” but is followed by a resurrection (Harrison Epilegomena xxxi). The women pictured in this presumed ritual illustrate a phase “such as all girls go through,” and perhaps none shall escape whipping, particularly one kneeling figure upon whom “the blow is about to descend” (MD 15; Cooke 162). Judy Little describes such rituals as “threshold occasions in human experience, … rites which accompany major transitions in life such as birth, weddings, death” with a sense of inner meaning almost expressed (Little 2,3,6, MD 47). This room of ritual forges a semiotic link between Clarissa and Septimus.

Meanwhile, Septimus Smith has been on his way to a career as a writer before the War takes him off to a more traditional initiation rite of becoming a man, dearly won. At first, his flourishing had suggested a “coming out,” the new blossom which a gardener might see if he had opened the conservatory door. “It has flowered,” the gardener might say, “had he opened the door” (MD 128-129). The War has changed the situation, however, closed the door to his room which has now lost its floral associations. The reference of significance is to a room which tropes the disturbed mental condition of Septimus Smith, a consequence of war experience in which he grieves for the death of his friend Evans, just as the Greek hero Achilles must, who had learned of the heroic death of his tent-companion Patroklos. At the time, however, he felt very little. “It was sublime” (MD 130). His concern, at this time, is with what is beautiful rather than opposite feelings of unpleasantness (Freud “The Uncanny 122-123). Eventually, however, he finds that “he could not feel” (MD 131). His room becomes symptomatic of his “antic disposition,” like “a room he had come into when the family are away … the chandeliers being hung in holland bags … [with] queer-looking armchairs … how wonderful, but at the same time … how strange” (MD 126). This seems a metaphorical composite of two untenanted rooms in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, one suggesting a dissipated fortune with its lamp “muffled up in a dismal sack of brown holland”, and the other a formerly noble house, “mourning the absence of its masters”; yet “how changed the house is” (see chapters 7 and 17). This passage serves as an objective parallel for the disturbed mentality of Septimus Smith as a virtually empty, not to mention shabby room. Certainly a physician’s care is warranted for the tenant of this kind of “room”.

When Doctor Holmes, also known as “Human Nature”, enters the actual room where Septimus is reclining, his wife is blocking the way; these words echo Septimus’s paranoia, when regarding the traffic jam in the street, he mutters “It is I who am blocking the way” (MD 21). “Large, flesh-coloured, handsome,” Holmes is adamant; “he had to give that charming little lady, Mrs. Smith, a friendly push before he could get past her into her husband’s bedroom” (MD 138). Subsequently, he executes the crime that sets crime in motion. Holmes is no respecter of privacy, like reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, according to Richard Dalloway’s disapproval, a violation of privacy like “listening at keyholes” (MD 113). When Rezia his wife is later “barring his passage” Holmes again puts her aside, being “a powerfully built man” (MD 225). Insofar as the room serves as a metaphor for the patient’s inward state for which the door is a sacred point of entrance, the intrusion of Dr. Holmes is analogous to “forcing his soul.” The allusion refers to the offence suggested by the “indescribable outrage” of which Sir William Bradshaw might be capable, as Clarissa, sensitive to infractions of social propriety, will later imply, “forcing your soul” (MD 281).

An erotic slant is eventually created by Dr. Holmes and his crude attentions directed toward Rezia Warren Smith, rather than attending to his patient Septimus. Dr. Holmes has taken note of Rezia and he has the brass to levy inappropriate compliments upon her: “And what a very pretty comb, if he might say so, Mrs. Warren Smith was wearing.” He comments to his patient, “quite a girl, a foreigner, wasn’t she?” and refers to her as a “charming little lady” (MD 138-39), attentions pilfered from the interest Doctor Zosimov shows for Raskolnikov’s sister, “almost licking his lips,” in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (MD 138-39; Hoff Invisible 151-152). Consequently it is Septimus who thinks he “had committed an appalling crime” (MD 145).

Holmes’s randiness is not wasted on Septimus who refers to him in such terms as an animal, the brute with the blood-red nostrils. All may be somewhat reminiscent of the question of fidelity of Imogen and Othello’s Desdemona as well when Rezia, flattered, tells Septimus that Holmes had asked her to tea; this constitutes a final violation of the standards of professional propriety, all of which should inspire a sense of outrage (MD 138-139).

A poem of Attic importance, reminiscent of Dr. Holmes who has forced his way into the room with impunity, enforces erotic associations by its “importing literature from ancient sources metaphorically”, as the victorious Greeks invade the royal premises of Priam through the sexually graphic imagery of Virgil’s Aeneid 2.465-500 (Beebe 1068).  Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, forces his way into the royal chamber at Troy, like a snake, “swollen and erect”. He approaches the interior rooms of the house where the private chambers of the king are open and naked. No barrier can hold him back; the door gives way before his “repeated hammerings” and he made a way by force – “fit via vi” line 494 (Mandelbaum 44-45). Such imagery suggests the violent invasion of privacy.

Subsequently, as Dr. Holmes, evaluating the Smiths by the room into which he has forced his way, ironically refers to their accomodations but  “looking not quite so kind”; with no personal or professional relation between himself and Sir William Bradshaw, he “reads” the room itself as an indicator of the presumption the Smiths have assumed, out of their fiscal depth, by consulting a costly medical specialist in Harley Street (MD 142). Oddly, the empty, shabby, disheveled room matching the patient’s mentality is not a diagnostic sign which Dr. Holmes has been able to read, perhaps for currying favor instead with Rezia. “There was nothing whatever the matter, said Dr. Holmes” in his characteristic normalization of deviance (MD 137). He is contradicted by the specialist Sir William Bradshaw who will correctly perceive, “Really, he was not fit to be about” (MD 149). “When a man comes into your room … and threatens to kill himself.… you order … rest in solitude” (MD 150-151). Therefore Septimus is to be hospitalized.

  The appointment with Sir William Bradshaw, the specialist in Harley Street, occurs at twelve o’clock, just as Clarissa Dalloway laid her green dress on her bed, the simultaneity found extensively in Jacob’s Room (MD 142). Clarissa enjoys complete privacy in her room; she had ascended the stairs, a recurring motif, and arrived at her attic room as if it were a sanctuary, yet feeling “suddenly shrivelled, aged, breastless” (MD 45). She first pauses at the open window in the staircase, then moves about her room from bed to dressing-table, and with herself reflected in the looking-glass, sees “the delicate pink face of the woman ” as she prepares for the event where she will preside “over her life-giving party,” and stand at the top of the stairs (MD 54, 55, 25; Little 49).

Much later in the day, again at her drawing room window and,  pausing on the stairs, she watches her elderly neighbor, the “old lady opposite” who is climbing upstairs just as she herself had done that morning. The old lady reaches her bedroom, parts her curtains, and disappears into the background. Oddly, Clarissa feels “there is something solemn in it”, as the woman is apparently unaware she is being watched. She, too, is looking out of the window of her own room, a situation which has earned Clarissa’s respect as an emblem of “the privacy of the soul,” a metaphor for privacy in a room of one’s own which is contrasted with the visit from Dr. Holmes (MD 192).  Her movements oddly suggest to Clarissa, uncannily, that “it had something to do with her,” since that morning she had also felt “unspeakably aged” and “at the same time was outside looking on” (MD 191-192, 11). Indeed, they are both “old ladies” who have climbed upstairs, each reflecting the other. It seems that Clarissa has failed to recognize her own reflection in the window.

The incident comes back as in a similar occasion when Sigmund Freud himself had momentarily failed to recognize the reflection of himself as an old man, jolted about on a train; the door to his carriage opens suddenly and he, regarding himself angrily in the looking-glass of the open door, thinks at first that his reflection is instead the sudden presence of an unwelcome intruder, “an elderly gentleman in a dressing gown and a traveling cap” who had come into his compartment by mistake (Freud “The Uncanny” 156 note 1). Similarly, Peter Walsh has recalled Clarissa, unable to escape from thinking of her and, as in Freud’s experience on the train, coming back “like a sleeper jolting against him in a railroad carriage” (MD 115). The moment for Clarissa, contrarily, becomes solemn and associated with some “supreme mystery” which Peter apparently believes he has solved. The independence of the old lady opposite inspires in Clarissa thoughts of some miracle, the mystery associated with that miracle, and of the solemn privacy of the soul, even the identity of the two women maintained by their likeness, in spite of their separation. It suggests an oxymoronic sense of the sublime as something very profound in Clarissa’s developing insights. As her elderly neighbor moves from room to room, the language implies for her a rite of passage between states of existence, perhaps of moving from life to death, or death to life. “Here was one room; there another” (MD 193). Clarissa respects that.

Little respect is accorded to Septimus Smith in his inner room; Clarissa’s oracular mantra, “fear no more,” from Cymbeline offers him only a release from suffering or an anticipation of his inability to endure (MD 211).  That evening the visiting Dr. Holmes once again, on the staircase, puts Rezia aside where she attempts to make a barrier against his passage: “My dear lady.” Making his way by force even after she has said “I will not allow you to see my husband,” Holmes persists, coming upstairs (MD 225). Unlike Clarissa’s circumstance in which the elderly neighbor is ascending the stairs, a parallel for Septimus consists of an old man coming down the staircase opposite which prefigures his suicidal leap. Once again, unlike Clarissa pausing at the window before the act, Septimus sees the old man not going up but instead coming down. For him, however, the window does not remain an aperture merely for watching the neighbors. For Septimus, the window becomes a threshold opening onto a new level of existence.

“Holmes is at the door. Holmes was coming upstairs, Holmes would burst open the door… Holmes would get him” (MD 226; see Hoff Invisible 205). We cannot blame Septimus for his miscalculation since it indicates his obvious awareness of the crude propensities Holmes has previously exhibited; hopes for appropriate therapy have been co-opted, however, since it is far likelier that Holmes would “get” Rezia instead. Therefore the double profanity of Holmes’s violation of his doorway and threshold is manifest. The extended ceremonial internal debate as Septimus contemplates the various methods of suicide delays his ultimate suicidal plunge which echoes the earlier plunge Clarissa has made as passing over the threshold of her Bourton room; he eventually succeeds in “opening the window and throwing himself out” (MD 226). Dr. Holmes, forcing his way again say, “My dear lady,” as if to indicate the purpose of his visit; failing to intercede, he bursts the door open once more, calling Septimus, “The coward,” unlike Hamlet for whom conscience makes cowards of us all (Hamlet 3.1. 82). His vault is followed by “a great deal of running up and down stairs” (MD 226-227).

Peter Walsh, in the street, experiences the feeling of the uncanny,  Freud’s phraseology, contemplating such “dead bodies”, potentially that of Septimus in the ambulance speeding to the hospital, merely as “one of the triumphs of civilization” with its efficiency (Freud “The Uncanny” 149; MD 229). For Peter Walsh, the metaphor of life is similar to that of Elizabeth Dalloway, “full of turns and corners.” Remembering Clarissa’s horror of death Peter issues a reminder of her “transcendental theory,” that “the unseen part of us …might survive, be recovered” just as she had previously proposed having her life over again (MD 231-232, 12). His appreciation of her “indomitable vitality” which carries her “triumphantly through” certifies Clarissa’s aversion to death; “what she liked was simply life” (MD 236, 237).

  Clarissa is understandably appalled when the matter of death invades her party which she has dedicated to life (MD 184, 280): “’That’s what I do it for,’ she said, speaking aloud to life” (MD 184). Clarissa now enters into a new life, becoming part of a larger narrative. By way of the phenomenon which Harrison designates as “psychical distance,” Clarissa experiences something like an “uncanny mingling of repose and terror, a flavor of such concentrated poignancy and delight as to contrast sharply with the blind and distempered anxiety of its other aspects” [but] “with the marveling unconcern of a mere spectator” (Harrison Ancient 129, 131).

The news of this incident, the suicide of Septimus Smith, in spite of “how unbelievable death was,” is introduced during Clarissa’s party by her guests, Sir William Bradshaw and his wife as messengers, who are tardy, presumably, due to attending this “young man” who had killed himself (MD 185, 279). Clarissa is shocked: “here’s death, she thought.” “What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party?” (MD 279-280)). She retires from the party, going into the privacy of an adjacent room with ominous words dismissing her friends Sally and Peter with only a promise: “I shall come back” (MD 275). This formula will reappear in the little room as she ponders the death of Septimus Smith  “(she would have to go back)” (MD 280). The thought comes again, “She must go back to them” (MD 283). At last, after reiterating, “But she must go back,” she finally comes in from the little room (MD 284).

Clarissa’s moments in the little room, a chamber of introspection par excellence, constitute a ritual ordeal of psychological sufferings, at a safe distance; her offering to life having been spoiled by a death she pauses in this sanctuary for hyper-dramatically anguished meditations, concluding “somehow it was her disaster – her disgrace.” As suggested by Judy Little, Clarissa resembles other characters in Mrs Dalloway who have compromised to some extent with the culture that defines them; she now feels “the overwhelming incapacity” of this life “to be walked with serenely” (Little 49; MD 281). “It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness, and she forced to stand here in her evening dress” (MD 279, 282).

“She walked to the window,” ominously reminiscent of the window from which Septimus plunged. As she opens the window curtains she is surprised to see the old lady, once again, staring straight at her. “She was going to bed in the room opposite” (MD 283). Now Clarissa watches her crossing the room, moving about, like Clarissa coming to the window; she wonders if she could see her because her neighbor, with more than a little likeness to Clarissa, is apparently preparing for sleep. Shortly she sees that the old lady, who was going to bed, has “put out her light!” language which confers a degree of ambiguity between the neighbor’s room and Clarissa’s, that the house, her own house, was dark (MD 283). These suggestive words have appeared on the lips of Othello with Clarissa’s former penchant for quoting Shakespeare’s punning Othello.  Ironically, in Shakespeare’s time, the reference ,“to die”, puns on the act of love; the citation, however, foreshadows the eventual murder of his wife Desdemona troped as “putting out her light.” The arrival of her old friend, Sally Seton, perhaps stimulates the memory of Othello who softly says, as Desdemona sleeps, “Put out the light, and then put out the light”, finally addressing the candle he holds, adding paradoxically, “I can again thy former light restore” (Othello 5.1.7-9).

Clarissa now recovers from the emotional reaction derived from the death of Septimus which had enveloped her. “She did not pity him.”  Yet “fear no more”, the returning dirge from Cymbeline, relative to Septimus who is clearly dead, suggests on Clarissa’s behalf her endurance in the face of inadvertency (MD 283).  It seems that for Clarissa, as formerly for Othello’s pun on death and sex there is “an embrace in death,” perhaps even as a sacred marriage (MD 281). However, Othello here addresses Desdemona, “But once put out thy light, … I know not where is that Promethean heat/ That can thy light relume” (lines 10-13) since she cannot have her life over again.  The sleeping Desdemona, falsely accused of infidelity, is like the faithful Imogen, but not expected to awake. Septimus, too, has similarly faced that “one unending night for sleeping” which Catullus has described.

Although disquieted, Clarissa says she felt very like him.   Clarissa’s judgment of the therapist, Sir William Bradshaw, among those who make life intolerable for this young man parallels Rezia Smith, his wife, in the erotic clutches of the other therapist, Doctor Holmes, seen in violation of the privacy of the soul. Clarissa now eveluates Bradshaw “capable of some indescribable outrage – forcing your soul,” a reminiscence of Dr. Holmes forcing his way past Rezia,  among those who make life intolerable. (MD 281). By way of her intuition, Clarissa has uncovered the metaphorical force of sexuality, as in Othello’s pun, involved  in the death of Septimus. “Death was defiance” (MD 280).

It seems doubtfully consoling to Clarissa, since as for Septimus, however defiant, death seems to have ended everything absolutely. Still, the old woman opposite, miming one who has just symbolically “put out her light,” may “relume” it the following evening unlike Othello’s Desdemona; it is a reassuring expectation for Clarissa, in her likeness to this elderly neighbor, to rise once more with the morning sun recalling Catullus: “Suns can set and rise again.” When she had gazed into Hatchards’ window she had asked rhetorically, “What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn?” (MD 12).  In a belated response, she sees the newly risen sun. “But there it was—ashen pale, raced over quickly by tapering vast clouds” (MD 283). Clarissa, having lost herself in the process of living, now experiences a shock of delight, not fear, as the sun rose -- in London near the solstice the evening remains light until nine and the dawn arrives at three. The clock strikes one, two three with the return of the dirge, “Fear no more,” over the awakening Imogen in Cymbeline; her “seemingly miraculous return to life” completes the play just as “Clarissa comes back from her solitary confrontation with death” to challenge its clockwork hegemony (Hillis Miller 200). Literally finding her youth with the dawn, she gladly feels like Septimus, “He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun” (MD  282, 283, 284). “And she came in from the little room” (MD 284).

Peter Walsh’s revisionist posture, characteristically “looking back,” has already provided his uncanny memory of Clarissa, formerly coming to a party just as now, “as he had often seen her, in a doorway with lots of people around her.” He rehearses the “mystery” which he has indeed solved, a passage which Clarissa believes is “simply this: here was one room; there another” (MD 193). He remembers Clarissa, at that time, with the familiar concluding words he has yet to utter: “There she was, however; there she was”; this prescient memory anticipates Clarissa’s return from the little room which has happened before, a paradoxical text “that at once completes and repeats itself” (MD 114-115; Wussow xiv). His former recollection was then, however, a description of Clarissa’s current reappearance in a novel which anticipates its own future; with the party almost over, and “the rooms getting emptier and emptier” she now comes back from the little room as his recollection returns to the present (MD 295). “That factor which consists in a recurrence of the same situations, things, and events does … undoubtedly … awaken an uncanny feeling” (Freud “The Uncanny” 143).

Crossing the threshold to her party, she moves from one room to the next, miming an initiatory passing from death to life as when, on the threshold of adulthood, she had “burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air” (MD 3).  Here Clarissa, as if awakened, crosses the threshold of the room which, as C. Ruth Miller has implied, maintains her continuity, although it seems to be “only a freakish aberration” (Beebe 1066). The uncanniness of Clarissa’s reappearance occurs when this “marked and familiar path ends again and again in a return to the same spot” as Peter has recalled (Freud “The Uncanny” 144). The paradox in fiction, said by some to be the mythology of the modern world,  “presents more opportunities for creating uncanny sensations than are possible in real life” (Freud “Uncanny” 160). Through Clarissa’s interest in life, her uncanny vitality, she resists dying through circularity, prolonging life through her endless deferral of death. She has survived.

                                                                                                                         Molly Hoff



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