The Labyrinth: Artistry and Confusion in Mrs Dalloway
“Caminante, no hay camino; se haces camino al andar”
(Traveler, there is no path; you make the path by traveling it)
a literary labyrinth, characterized by clauses reflecting interconnecting
passages of linguistic digressions and discontinuous sequences of narrative, is
to study one of the many archetypal forms of literary art. The examination of
this deliberate means by which Mrs
Dalloway shapes its own art by means of a familiar conventional form is to
investigate the nature of the labyrinth as a complex structural pattern.
Labyrinthine structures exposing obscurity, fraudulence, and complexity in all
their forms provide a broad and all-encompassing medium for literary study.
According to Mircea Eliade, “The one thing that matters is not to say later
that one did not understand the importance of a new artistic experience”
(Eliade 188). Becoming lost in a labyrinth is to be expected.
a symbol both of life’s journey and the inner pilgrimage one makes, the image
of the dark winding labyrinth seems a fitting analogy for the wanderings
described by the self-conscious characters in Mrs Dalloway. The conventional functions of the labyrinth topos answers to several irritated
complaints about the novel’s seemingly confusing and incoherent stylistic which
has thwarted some commentators, “dazzled by its style” (Knapp 28). Although
even the experienced are challenged by the discontinuity often typical of self-conscious
language, this novel is characterized by “details which do best when read as
referring to themselves” (Klinkowitz 126). Mrs
Dalloway has also aroused confusion by way of its unusual obscurity through
literary allusiveness that introduces complexity. The intrinsic difficulty lies
in the novel’s intentional design, deliberately confusing and obscurely aligned
as a textual labyrinth, a tradition conditioned by its history. In labyrinthine
texts, as Virginia Woolf herself suggested, “certain paths seem to lead to
fertile land, others to the desert” (Woolf CR
146). The most prominent feature of Mrs
Dalloway is the fore-grounded narrative style which exploits the metaphorical
maze as a topos and a model for
analysis as well.
word “labyrinth” never appears in the text, unlike the narrative of James Joyce
who felt he must explicitly assign a labyrinthine technique to the narrative of
his novel Ulysses which winds through
the cityscape of Dublin. The language of Mrs
Dalloway itself, however, indicates the influence of this intricate verbal
style without any further notice. Often overlooked in commentary, the complex
style of this novel demands that its labyrinthine design be recognized as a
formal literary tradition that calls attention to its artifice. That style of
composition relates to the language of the labyrinth and its perplexities; the
issue is language and structure rather than landscape. This is perhaps the first
sign of deceptiveness. There is no map.
The labyrinth as a textual device is essentially a metaphor for a
difficult pathway, process, or situation, such as this text which some have
found difficult to follow. The unicursal labyrinth, sometimes called a maze, is
a conventionally single path, tediously long, perhaps complex in configuration,
but in which the explorer is unable to become lost. Students of plots or plot
summaries or readers merely
following the events of Mrs Dalloway
without understanding the writerly nuances follows such a unicursal literary
maze. Such a reader need only persevere in order to succeed according to Angus
Fletcher. The other type of literary labyrinth, the multicursal (the labyrinth
proper), consists of many devious structures which are complex, and purposely
designed for explorers to become lost while searching for the center as well as
the exit. Mrs Dalloway is clearly a
multicursal labyrinth. Metaphors, the means for typically enormous
opportunities for confusion, introduce nuances expressed literally,
figuratively or both.
In literature, both authors and critics,
ancient and modern, alternate in using the two terms (labyrinth and maze)
interchangeably and without implying any great distinction between them; for
example, Northrop Frye’s usage shows that the labyrinth may also be described
as a maze: “The labyrinth or maze [is] the image of lost direction” (Frye Anatomy 150). As a metaphor, the
unicursal form, in the visual arts, may include the winding road or meander. In
this type the traveler has only two choices: he can choose only to keep moving
or to stop” (Fletcher 335). The pedestrians, like most of those who persevere
with the plot sequence in Mrs Dalloway,
invariably arrive at their destination without serious difficulty.
Comprehending reticulate discourse so notoriously difficult to follow is
another matter. Reading a literary text of intersecting passages, “something
that could not have been reached by a direct route” remains analogous to
tracing the multicursal maze (Doob 51, 56). Mrs
Dalloway is so designed.
Dalloway’s charming simile expresses the clearest example of a character
encountering a multicursal labyrinth as she proceeds toward the City. It bears
the responsibility both of narrative and as self-reference as well. Although
the situation is unfamiliar she is not actually lost or even nearly so, but the
language of the adventurous young woman illustrates, metaphorically, the
choices involved in traveling a multicursal maze of interconnecting ways, the domus dedale as hypothetically
experienced by an active reader of Mrs
Dalloway. She “feels like someone penetrating on tiptoe, exploring a
strange house, on edge lest someone should suddenly fling wide the door” and
not daring to “wander off into queer alleys, tempting bye-streets any more than
… open doors which might be bedroom doors, or sitting-room doors, or lead
straight to the larder” (MD 208). The
image of the door as an introit as well as a blocked passage is a reappearing
Traveling along the Strand, Elizabeth
imagines exploring a location analogous to opening the various doors of a
private home, similar to passages of complex narrative closed to passive
readers. The richness of this passage serves both as a realistic component of
the narrative and as a clever example of labyrinthine metaphor; expert readers
may see the way to pursue either or both. Amateurs, instead, might regard this
passage merely as inconsequential, incoherent, or puzzling in terms of a
narrative leading nowhere. Such diction illustrates a narrative of plural
interpretations like a multicursal maze that seems to lead to a logical result
only to reverse itself, obstruct further passage, or otherwise conceal its
value as a component of the plot. Hugh Whitbread illustrates such reflexivity
as a troubling vagueness in matters calling for a sophisticated interlocutor
who “would quite understand without requiring him to specify” (MD 7).
literature the labyrinth serves as an image within a mythic tradition employed
as a tool for giving shape and meaning to complex works of elegance and
artistry. Among these are allusions to the language of the maze in Virgil’s Aeneid, where, in a flashback, Aeneas
escaping from Troy with tangled mind follows a trackless path only to lose his
wife who had wandered off the road (Mandelbaum Aeneid lines 992-997); Chaucer also says it happened “at a turnynge
of a went [i.e. a path]/ How Creusa was ylost, allas” (House of Fame 1.183-184). Further, Dante’s Divine Comedy opens with the problem clearly stated (“in the midst
of living we find that we are lost” according to Fletcher 331) just as in the House of Fame when Geoffrey “romed up
and doune” in his dream (1.140). Unlike many works which feature flashbacks,
these do not merely revert to the past as do difficult, ambiguous works of
plural interpretation. Yet all play with “tensions between linearity and
circularity” (Doob 225). Such is the imagery of labyrinths of words in the
flashbacks to India or Bourton within a mélange of intersecting literary
allusions. Were these literary classics to come alive and stand among us, they
might say of Mrs Dalloway “she is one
bit of Plato is encountered, an allusion designed as a hidden character
inserted with labyrinthine obscurity, when Clarissa, walking in Piccadilly, claims to prefer walking in
the city like Socrates (Plato Phaedrus
227; MD 7). Such a reference goes
ambiguously in two directions at once, London and Athens. Narrative action
encloses an obscure literary allusion. Soon Clarissa encounters the curious
dirge from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline
with the works of Surtees and Mrs Asquith also plainly visible in the bookstore
window (MD 13). The section closes
with Clarissa’s arrival at the florists to buy flowers; the floral assortment
is similar to those gathered by Persephone in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (MD 17-18). The suggested literary works follow a
“Homeric” path in one direction, the “Platonic” in another. The incoherent
sequence follows the disorienting course of the maze. Each portion of
Clarissa’s literary route indicates more than one secondary reference, each
obscure source leading to a complex conclusion.
recognize that the text is an intellectual labyrinth, a baffling route, is
helpful. Understanding at least that much may offer some consolation for those
whom Woolf has said elsewhere are “wandering in the maze of the impossible and
meaningless story”; language of vagueness, disorientation, and confusion
indicates the presence of the labyrinth, language echoed in Woolf’s own literary
criticism (Woolf CR 57). In the
narrative of Mrs Dalloway, frequent
flashbacks, digressions, interruptions, and broken sequences characterize the
maze as arduous labor and endless travels. Pedestrians mapping the cityscapes
of London encounter one of the qualities of the unicursal labyrinth’s extended
mode. The multicursal is often indicated by language alone.
comings and goings describe the labyrinthine narrative structure by means of
flashbacks, a common novelistic device. Clarissa herself opens the scene in
Westminster with a flashback to her youth by immediately coming through two
doorways at once; the first is in the Westminster of the present and is
simultaneously associated with a reminiscence of coming through a similar door
at Bourton in the distant past. This opening passage, a doorway being a
character’s typical site of entry into the discourse, introduces the pattern of
homologous flashbacks as a simultaneous pair of temporal references which for
most has remained unnoticed. Memories of Bourton resume with Clarissa as a girl
of eighteen suggested by Hugh Whitbread, alternating with her current state as
Mrs Dalloway at 53. The two suggest her dual mythic persona as Demeter and
Persephone, matron and maid ; “she felt very young and at the same time
unspeakably aged” (MD 8, 11; Harrison
271-274). This structure has Clarissa bursting into the narrative through a
double door, and it concludes at last as she comes through another, as a
revolving door, that connects her with the beginning.
Her next gambit recalls Peter Walsh among the cabbages,
who perhaps shares the same reminiscences since he, too, indulges in backward
glances of Bourton. This represents a clearly disorienting instance of ambiguous
language (“cabbages?”) except that recognition of the labyrinth accounts for
it. The term refers to fragments of cloth
[cabbaged] expropriated from a tailor, a trope for lines of poetry
“cabbaged” from Plato, Shakespeare, or Homer. When he enters the intricate
narrative in person, Peter Walsh, recently returned to England, eventually
finds himself facing the allusive textual entrance and exits, like Elizabeth
Dalloway, in the language of the multicursal labyrinth. He images the labyrinth
of life as consisting of “the endless avenues, down which if he chose he might
wander” even when it seems his future “rolls down to him” like the stone of
Sisyphus (MD 78, 75). The image
anticipates his further wanderings; the intricate details of his account of the
past, however, are characteristically even more digressive and confusing.
Beebe, in agreement with T.S. Eliot, assures us that the use of myth, such as
the labyrinth as a device for “ordering, of giving a shape and a significance”
to art, is a feature of Modernism (Beebe 1073; Eliot 177). Mrs Dalloway, an elegantly Modernist text, exhibits such a wealth
of metaphoric to-ing and fro-ing relevant to labyrinths that it merits a full
explication. The language of typical labyrinthine behaviors which characters
mentally execute is sometimes phrased as “straying” and “wandering” (MD 70, 252). The discourse itself is
digressive and discontinuous.
of the narrative discloses the youthful history of the characters in flashbacks
concerning Peter’s courtship of Clarissa and Clarissa’s memories of her youth
as well. Unlike some novels which begin with a clear situation and follow it
out until it comes to an end, this one goes back and forth among labyrinthine
twists and turns various levels of “pastness” which is its method of fleshing
out romantic themes and introducing mysterious ones. Recurring formulaic
expressions such as “Fear no more,” a Proustian petite phrase, add to the disorienting obscurities. Many readers
have found this banal love story so difficult to follow that they abandon the
pursuit, but persistence pays. “Difficulty is privileged partly as a method of
attaining elegance and well-wrought artistry” (Doob 193). Mingling
straightforward discourse with obscure fabrication occurs as both characters
and reader pass along the devious paths of narrative. Faced with turns and
circles, readers like foot travelers experience the consequent bewildering of a
maze-like verbal geography.
Repetitions lend a poetic frame for
much of the narrative; as poetic components in a normally prose text, they demonstrate
a frustrated progress, or arrival at an unsuccessful conclusion, as the reader
merely returns to the iterated phrase. This circularity anticipates the
fullness of the circular novel itself: “For it was the middle of June … It was
June,” a repetitious phrase in which the poetic structure called ring
composition brackets several topical references to the Great War and dead
soldiers (MD 5). How significant can the month of June be?
such marks of identification there is the novel’s frequent recursiveness
conveyed within flashbacks, a metaphorical labyrinth containing smaller
versions of itself, interpolated narratives nested within one another, bearing
opportunities for characterization. They may be confusing to the passive reader
who observes a repetition of ground already traveled. As in the
self-reflexivity of Modernist fiction they elicit “different levels of nested
concepts” (Hofstadter 672). The narrative retraces its steps, backtracking over
events already covered, making little narrative progress. For example, when
Richard visits Clarissa the opening of the door repeats Peter’s similarly
phrased morning visit: “Who at this hour? Three, good Heavens! Three already! …
but the door handle slipped round and in came Richard! What a surprise!” (MD 178). The Dalloway’s later
conversation is a recursion, an interconnecting summary of the morning event
but existing as a smaller version of Peter’s introit: “Who can – what can? …
[interrupted at eleven o’clock], now the brass handle slipped … so surprised
she was” (MD 59). For the reader the
similarity between these two situations may be disorienting with the justified
sense of having previously read one or the other bit of discourse; Richard’s visit contains a recursion, a
smaller version of Peter’s entrance, a sign of the labyrinth. Clarissa repeats
the visit in summary for Richard: “Peter Walsh was back … and he was going to
get a divorce, and he was in love with some woman out there. And he hadn’t
changed in the slightest” (MD 179).
When two different characters self-consciously construct the subject of the
same story, Lady Bruton is correct in her feeling, “the difference between one
man and another does not amount to much” (MD
structures, symptomatic of the maze, may guide the perplexed as illustrative
analogue. The labyrinth manifests its components in language that resembles the
anfractuous structure of Ovid’s famous poem about the labyrinth which appears
within his similarly artful fiction-making process. The map of London, however,
integral to the circular action in the novel, with its geometric intersections,
crossroads, and squares is easily explored in a literal reading of the plot,
the default category. The linguistic composition of the equally anfractuous
Dalloway narrative is quite otherwise.
the language of traversing the maze, the Londoners themselves typically wander,
stray, rove, ramble and meander. Such imagery describes them coursing the
geographically constructed labyrinth. Visitors who are lost, like Maisie Johnson,
must ask for directions, and she joins “that gently trudging, vaguely gazing
breeze-kissed company” (MD 37-38).
Those navigating the urban labyrinth as puzzled readers, like the characters,
are occasionally required to go back and retrace their route or reread the
discourse when they find they have missed their way. Maisie gets assistance,
but the text supplies metaphors and reflexivity for instruction, being thus
schooled by the novel itself. “Why
hadn’t she stayed at home,” are Maisie’s silent words, sentiments that echo
those of Rezia who also is
nonplussed by the ranting from Septimus Warren Smith.
literary model of the labyrinth originates in Ovid’s Classical narrative
formulated in the midst of his own labyrinthine text familiar to many common
readers (Ovid Metamorphoses Book 8,
lines 150 ff). Many such ancient designs are round, shaped as concentric
circles, the perfect form of repetition and renewal (Doob 103). Similarly, the
obtrusive mannerisms in Mrs Dalloway
are intricately constructed so that the circular narrative emphasizes the style
and the complexity of the elegant design they imitate as in Ovid’s example.
This figure of artistic intrigue takes precedence over the
ordinary events which characterizes Clarissa Dalloway’s day. The mannered style
is an important component; the recursive narrative construction concerning her
repetition of the morning tête-a-tête
with Peter, all for Richard’s benefit, exemplifies the textual labyrinth as a
stylistic challenge. The intricacy and the repetition, however, may suggest the
disorder and chaos of an inferior work; such is the opinion of A. D. Moody who
claims that Woolf had reached “the limits of her talent,” trying to express
“what she had no language for” (Moody 67). Clearly the construction is of the
most highly skilled design. “What appears chaotic may in fact fall into a
recognizable structure termed a labyrinth” (Senn 101). A reader might fear not
“being advanced enough and hence not to be in time to recognize genius in a
work that is at first unintelligible” (Eliade 187).
lexicon includes language with such concepts as confusion and conflict, flowing
and looping, innumerable windings and deceptive twistings, tortuous aisles and
passages which describe the labyrinth, a fabrication of the ingenious builder
Daedalus, architectural phenom. The original structure was commissioned by King
Minos (in illo tempore, in legendary
time) as a prison for the vicious Minotaur which Theseus is commissioned to
kill, trailing Ariadne’s thread which is to guide him back through the complex
route once he has arrived at the center; the maze was finally created as an
artistic structure as well. Inadvertently captured in his own devious
structure, the skilled artist, Juvenal’s flying carpenter of Satires 1 , designed pairs of wings for
himself and his son Icarus who then made
their escape by soaring away (Ovid Metamorphoses
multicursal maze is dangerous even if no minotaur is lurking” (Doob 46). It is
characterized by forking paths, literal and figurative readings, and may become
a prison where the traveler becomes perpetually lost if choosing incorrectly.
The forking path, the bivia, of
plural interpretations tropes the doubts involving the two ways, one between
literal, the other between figurative readings. More often there is an array of
choices such as the assorted bags
and satchels in Mrs Dalloway
which literally contain written texts like pamphlets and books (MD 41, 197, 231). A plural
interpretation, here a metaphor containing another metaphor, would include a
reference to Mrs Dalloway itself
containing allusive examples of the world’s literature.
Ovidian diction with tales within tales matches the elaborate syntax in Mrs Dalloway, the repeated formulaic
expressions, the elevated vocabulary and obscure constructs in the novel (such
as ring composition) being foreign to modern literature (Hoff Invisible 260-261). The artistic
narrative pattern of Mrs Dalloway
matches Ovid’s verbal structures. The labyrinth topos remains a virtual metaphor for both the complexity of
narrative and its hermetic intrigue. Always subject to error, readers pursuing
those wandering characters traversing the complex verbal labyrinth find that
the text typically employs a particularly manneristic lexicon. With language
similar to that of Ovid they openly call attention to the artistic framework
which encompasses them.
skywriting aeroplane, which appears above the London cityscape advertising
assorted commodities before the upturned faces of the people below, tropes both
the mutual relationship with the labyrinthine concept of textual complexity and
its winged architect as well. Since “critics seem increasingly fond of
referring to texts metaphorically as labyrinths or mazes … as motif and
mythical symbol,” this exhibition by an aerial “writing machine” is appropriate
to the work at hand (Senn 99-100). Diction which imitates the recursive
artifice of this novel containing a difficult text which is a smaller version
of itself, an admittedly difficult text, also applies. Writing about writing involves “a
twisting journey from things to words, from words to categories, from
categories to metaphors and logic” (Gleick 39).
This features the narcissistic nature
of a text wishing its nature to be fully comprehended. The aeroplane “which
curled and twisted, actually writing something,” images the creation of a
textual maze. Its fluttering smoke words issuing from behind in various letters
of the alphabet are almost entirely unintelligible to its readers below (MD 29-30). The last of the aeroplane is
finally seen when “out from behind poured white smoke,” the iterated phrase
bracketing everything which has transpired in the interim, thus frustrating
progress. Readers must effectively return to the beginning (MD 42).
interpretations of this phenomenon vary; in the tangled mind of Septimus Smith
it represents beauty, “the birth of a new religion.” For Mrs Dempster it
represents “a fine young feller aboard of it” reminiscent of Daedalus himself
and even Geoffrey Chaucer upon his eagle (House
of Fame 2.529 ff); for Mr. Bentley it is a “symbol of man’s soul, of his
determination … to get outside his body” (MD
40-41). To Mr. Bowley, a transtextual character from Woolf’s earlier novel Jacob’s Room, it’s “toffee,” or Cockney
slang for ornamentation. As Woolf tropes it elsewhere, “The turns and twists of
the [discourse] keep us on the tenterhooks of suspense” (CR 139). No one perceives this aeroplane as a writer, specifically
writing letters which produce an obscure text such as itself, writing about
writing. For the literal minded Clarissa Dalloway it has been merely “the
strange high singing of some aeroplane overheard” (MD 5). As a writer of unreadable discourse, “mounting in ecstasy,”
it inspires nothing in her since she has not even seen it. “What are they
looking at?” she asks (MD 42). For
the others it remains equally inconsequential.
labyrinth imaged as a pathway “conveys an impression of pleasant or unpleasant
intricacy; it also may inform narrative structure at large” (Fletcher 329).
Some personages, its readers for instance, are thwarted in their travels and
are modeled by the mysterious car which is caught in a traffic jam. It is the
Queen, perhaps, on a shopping trip, or even the Prince of Wales, according to
onlookers (MD 24, 46). “The street
was blocked” as reader facing an unintelligible text are blocked, imaging
readers who have come to a dead-end. Fortunately the chauffeur prevails upon a
policeman, and the still mysterious car passes through. The traffic jam
triggers the referential thinking of Septimus Smith whose mind has strayed; “it
is I who am blocking the way” (MD
difficulty of negotiating a labyrinth is an appropriate figure for describing
the complexity of narrative, further exhibited after Clarissa’s rebuke, that
Peter had no right “to make out that life was all plain [plane] sailing,” of
which he later boasts in so many words, “All plain [plane] sailing “ (MD 184, 238). Yet it is necessarily
Clarissa who is his guide like Ariadne assisting Theseus as he admits, since
she was known to “pilot him back across country,” a featureless textual
landscape, when she got her bearings and he had presumably lost his (MD 233). Significantly, disoriented in
Trafalgar Square, he asks himself, “Where am I?” (MD 78). By the end of the day, as a conflicted character saying one
thing now and something else later, he imagines to himself that “he had found
life like an unknown garden full of turns and corners,” and thus with the
perspective of a man in maze, he quietly acknowledges that life is most
assuredly not plain sailing (MD 230).
original labyrinth was intended to be an inextricable prison for the Minotaur
in design, and in effect for those unhappily lost in its intersecting corridors
(Ovid Metamorphoses 8.158). Sally
Seton invokes the imagery of the maze as a prison. Clarissa’s friend from youth
at Bourton, Sally asks rhetorically, “Are we not all prisoners” like the man
who scratched on the wall of his cell (MD
293). The maze imaged as a prison here is a literary motif similar to a verbal
structure of infinite complexity, but which also suggests a case in which life
imitates art. If escaping the labyrinth of life is problematical, then the real
threat for the prisoner is death in the clutches of the Minotaur.
Hilbery, like Mr Bowley another transtextual character reappearing from Woolf’s
Night and Day, emphasizes her role in
signifying Mrs Dalloway as a part of
a self-contained literary universe; “that wandering will-o’-the-wisp, that
vagulous phosphorescence,” has returned for a cameo appearance. She expresses
herself in language related to the Dalloway house, the domus dedale, evoking the labyrinth, “looking for the door”; and
she has found “quiet nooks and corners … but there were so many doors, such
unexpected places, she could not find her way” (MD 266-267; 290-291).
Her experience is typical of those negotiating the multicursal labyrinth
and serves as a summary trope for all that has gone before. Others like Lady
Bradshaw, regretting her stoutness, also find the labyrinth a tight place; “she
cramped, squeezed, pared, pruned, drew back, peeped through” journeying in the
grey car with her husband, the great doctor (MD 152).
characters, Clarissa, Peter, Mrs Hilbery, Lady Bradshaw, Sally and finally
Septimus Smith, linked by the trope of the maze, all experience the troubled
aspect of readers being blocked or unable to proceed. Mircea Eliade has
proposed the labyrinth is a myth of an initiation ritual or a series of initiations
base on the life/labyrinth metaphor, an ordeal of passing through doorways and
crossing thresholds of growth and maturation “such as all girls go through”
(Fletcher 332; MD 15). Fictional
models of the traditional maze, as in Mrs
Dalloway, include types of stairways, forests, towers, deserts, oceans, and
all walled enclosures. They are both inextricable and impenetrable in an
intricate interlace of interfering narrative digression and verbal
circumambulations which interrupt the continuity. For example, walled
enclosures figure in the relationship between Clarissa and Peter, to Clarissa’s
an important occasion, a thematic flashback, Peter happens upon Clarissa and
Sally walking up and down like Geoffrey as if pacing a maze on the terrace
together. Peter, who is likely to wander off alone during this period of
amorous conflict, deploys the word “wandering” considered a conventional sign
of error in the labyrinthine lexicon (MD
90). Clarissa is implacable when she finds that Peter has blocked her passage
in the labyrinth of her initiation: “It was like running one’s face against a
granite wall in the darkness” (MD
53). She has intuited that something would “embitter her moment of happiness.”
The image evokes a maze when a dead-end in a passageway has been reached and
the desired emotion in the event has been frustrated (prevented from achieving
its due perfection). Later, in Peter’s version, when Clarissa’s relationship
with him is fraying the fracture transpires in a walled-in-place, a little
garden by the broken fountain where, while Clarissa is unable to tell him the
truth, “she had to break with him or they would have been destroyed, both of
them ruined” (MD 10, 97). The
uncomfortable sensation of having read similar accounts leading to similar conclusions confuses unwary
readers traversing the maze.
human reproductive tract has also been regarded as a displaced version of the
labyrinth (Frye Anatomy 190).
Reference to the arrival of Septimus Smith, like “a drowned sailor,” borrows a
literary allusion masquerading as mere narrative, specifically Lucretius’s
metaphor of the newborn infant’s similarity to a drowned sailor crying on the
seashore (De rerum natura 5.
222-227). Septimus enters the discourse through a metaphorical birth; he finds
himself near the primary initiation event birth, and in the throes of the labor
of self-begetting with the umbilicus serving as Ariadne’s guiding thread: “He
strained; he pushed … streamers of bright sunlight fawned at his feet … We
welcome, the world seemed to say; we accept; we create” (MD 104). This represents the first of his initiation trials,
primarily the labor intus in the
false etymology of “laborinth” or the labyrinth in bono (Doob 95; “work within”). There will be more than one tight
place for him later, resembling the labyrinth in malo. Both he and Clarissa must face human monsters,
characterized as “Minotaurs” (Ovid 8.169).
Kilman, Elizabeth Dalloway’s history tutor who is devoted to the victims of the
Russian famine, is also traveling a troubled spiritual labyrinth although “the
Lord had shown her the way …. Yet to others God was accessible and the path to
him smooth.” In the Abbey she obstructs a Mr. Fletcher; “she did not at once
let him pass” so rough the approach to her God (MD 188, 203). She, however, bears features qualifying her as a
“brutal monster,” as a “hooved” beast, “a prehistoric monster armoured for
primeval warfare” like the half bull, half-human Minotaur which is imprisoned
in the center of the labyrinth (MD
17, 90). This feature is
introduced early in the narrative in preparation for its appearances yet to
come. “Mr. Whittaker had said she was there for a purpose (MD 195-196).
stirring of Kilman, this brutal monster, makes Clarissa’s “house delightful
rock as if indeed there were a monster grubbing at the roots” (MD 17). Kilman’s intended victim,
however, is apparently Elizabeth, her young charge, “like some dumb creature,
who has been led up to a gate for some unknown purpose, and stands there longing
to gallop away” (MD 200-201). Richard
Dalloway understands Kilman to be accomplished in the field of history
(Northrop Frye writes of the labyrinth of history—Anatomy 191). Yet, she is seen navigating with as much difficulty
as in her spiritual life while in the labyrinthine Army and Navy Stores. She
“lost her way” among trunks being sent to India, baby linen, and various other
commodities, “and at last came out into the street” (MD 201-2). As a version of the Minotaur, however, in the “labyrinth
in malo,” her enmity is aimed at
Clarissa with self-righteous serenity.
whose political sentiments feature a logical maze, is memorable for her
politically incorrect German sympathies. “She would not pretend that the
Germans were all villains” in reference to the Great War. She had lost her
position because her employer felt justified in freeing her to work with people
“who shared her views about the Germans,” a euphemism which through iteration
emphasizes her position “in other
words” (MD 187). Kilman’s diction is
a paraphrase of two lines from The
Acharnians by Aristophanes (425 bce),
an allusion without attribution: “Yet I know that these our foemen, who
our bitter wrath excite/ were not always wrong entirely, nor ourselves entirely
right” (Trans. Rogers). The context of these ancient poetic lines originally
gave an artistic form of expression to political viewpoints which would not
have been accepted otherwise. Such paraphrases, language diverted from its
original course, suggest “the labyrinth of life and literature” and such works
of complex art (Doob 336).
Fascism was beginning to come to life in the Europe of 1923, Kilman’s diction
regarding the antipathy she nourishes for Clarissa, “Fool! Simpleton!” as well
as her “over-mastering desire to overcome her,” and her own “mastery,” are
reminiscent of the Aryan ideology of the self-avowed Master Race then becoming
ascendant in Germany. This diction betrays leanings toward political epithets,
as a German version of Fascism (MD
189). She is a thoroughly unpleasant character who interconnects with features
shared with Sir William Bradshaw. Together they trope the labyrinth by way of
their shared evil qualities.
Kilman resembles Sir William Bradshaw, the physician who is only one nemesis
for Septimus Smith in the subtext concerning this seriously disturbed veteran
of the War. His plans to incarcerate Septimus (like King Minos “he shut people
up” MD 154) recalls the “labyrinth in malo” which famously serves as a
prison for the deadly monster, the Minotaur. His concern for “the good of
society” and regulation of “unsocial impulses” bred by “the lack of good blood”
reveal him as inspired by these racist theories of social Darwinism, eugenics,
and racial hygiene typical of the Aryan requirements of German Fascists popular
in the early decades of the 20th century. Bradshaw’s “curious
exercise of the arms which he shot out” much like a Fascist salute, expresses
the flavor of Prussian militarism and pride in his own self-mastery; his
resemblance to Kilman’s sentiments which have become current in England as well
are apparent (MD 153-154). The King
and Queen, who had championed Benito Mussolini, have recently returned from
knighting the Fascist dictator of Italy, June 11, 1923, who had assumed power
in 1922 (Froula 353 note 9; Hoff Invisible
18). Citing the unpleasant character of Sir William Bradshaw, Clarissa
associates Bradshaw, forcing the soul just as Holmes forces the door of the
bedroom where Septimus reclines, with something “obscurely evil” and Miss
Kilman as well (MD 281). Thus
manifested, Mrs Dalloway earns a
degree of status in the antifascist Bloomsbury advance guard (Froula 28).
Septimus, in the subtext, Bradshaw evokes King Minos who imprisoned the
Minotaur in the labyrinth and who captures victims for its sustenance.
Septimus, the intended victim faces Dr Holmes renamed as “Human Nature” whose
threat is imminent. Dr Holmes typically enters the room where Septimus is
resting through a door which Rezia has partially obstructed. “Really 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, 225). Holmes, as the personification of “human cruelty” is characterized
as both a beast and a human at once like the Minotaur. Even in his mentally
disordered state, Septimus’s sense is correct: “Holmes is on us …Once you fall
… human nature is remorseless” (MD
213, 148). Finally confronting Holmes, the hybrid half-man/half-beast, “the
brute with the red nostrils,” confusion prevails as “Holmes says one thing,
Bradshaw another” (MD 139, 223, 225).
Until now, Septimus has no tragic
sense and is oblivious to the existence of evil until his final encounter with
Holmes. Dr Holmes typically enters the room where Septimus is resting through a
door blocked by Rezia standing in his way. As Holmes is characterized as both a
beast and a human at once like the Minotaur Septimus fears him: “Holmes is on
us …Once you fall … human nature is remorseless” (MD 213, 148). Finally he must confront
Holmes, the hybrid half-man/half-beast, “the brute with the red nostrils.”
Apparently Septimus is finally
compliant with Sir William’s arrangements suggesting the maze, packing for his “delightful
home down in the country” (MD 146).
But suddenly, Septimus, the intended victim faces Dr Holmes renamed as “Human
Nature” whose threat is imminent, and who is clearly the beast “snuffing into
every secret place” with blood-red nostrils (MD 223). Holmes, as the personification of “human cruelty” would
a “Minotaur” for Septimus who seems about to tear him to pieces, approaches his
room even with Rezia, as always, courageously blocking his passage. Although
birdlike, hopping from foot to foot but lacking the wings designed by Daedalus,
Septimus cannot fly (Ovid 8.225). Before Holmes can force the door, however,
Septimus leaps from the labyrinth and falls to this death like Icarus in
Auden’s poem (MD 208). His troubling suicide, the crisis,
appears in the subplot as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, at the Act Three turning
point, so to speak. It bears the perplexing appearance of a digression, a
premature conclusion. An event of such gravity might better have occurred at
the end. Rather than seeming a tempting bye-street leading nowhere, however, it
is located here at the peak of Freytag’s triangle. Serving to introduce the dènouement, it draws together
several strands. His attempt at communication opens a passageway, a thread
which connects with Clarissa’s consciousness. (MD 148, 208). For Clarissa, however, her part in the narrative of
the labyrinth is primary.
the labyrinthine aesthetic, Ariadne aids Theseus in approaching the center of
the structure where the fierce Minotaur he was to kill has waited; she gives
him her thread to trace his entrance and then, reversing the route, guide him
back safely; the thread thus maps the entire labyrinth in both directions
(Fletcher 335, 338). The structure must be of the multicursal variety;
otherwise, in a unicursal construct he would have only needed to persevere in
traversing the structure in either direction. Details
of the convention are demonstrated in Chaucer’s Legend of Ariadne (lines 2011-2014). The labyrinth, a prison where
Theseus is encarcerated, “crinkled to and fro … shapen as the mase is wrought,”
is sometimes regarded as Ariadne’s dancing floor. The choreography in Mrs Dalloway, however, remains baffling.
Some critics have seen the text as the labyrinth itself; in this case such
writers are artificers like Daedalus. Others see the plot as Ariadne’s thread
which allows Theseus to find his way back from the center, thus retracing his
steps with the thread as a guiding text for the circuitous quest, the labyrinth
maze has been compared to life itself wherein people felt “the impossibility of
reaching the center which mystically evaded them,” endlessly deferred (MD 280-281). Just as Dante who invokes
the “Midday topos” in his opening to
the labyrinthine Commedia “in the
midst of living,” the Dalloways are similarly disposed in the middle of their
life. Meanwhile, it is clear that the literary context of the labyrinth assists
in matters of allusiveness concerning texts “parasitically built on the works
of others” including the “enigmatic ambiguity of reference” (Doob 324; Senn
When Richard Dalloway and Hugh
Whitbread have left Lady Bruton’s luncheon they are “attached to her by a thread” … until she “let the thread snap,”
an unreliable helpmate (MD 170).
Clarissa, on the other hand, has “in her a thread of life” known for “toughness,
endurance, power to overcome obstacles, and carry her triumphantly through” (MD 236). The adventure of Theseus and
Ariadne concludes when Theseus, the cad, abandons his faithful helper sleeping
on the beach, and with her sister he sails away home to Athens, touching
details appearing in Ovid’s Heroides.
The incident figures in Clarissa’s mind: “He has left me; I am alone forever,
she thought; … Take me with you,” as if Peter had been Theseus already on his
journey homeward (Ovid Metamorphosis
8.176; MD 70. See also Chaucer House of Fame 1.407-418).
of the Dalloway crowd are imaged back-tracking, retracing their steps from the
beginning as they return to the past in narratives and narratives within
narratives. Peter Walsh makes a complete circuit through London in the morning,
returning in the evening for Clarissa’s party. For readers who ramble through
the discourse with Elizabeth, the Smiths, and Clarissa herself, the narrative
task rests in “judging precisely how far to go, when to turn; and how … to
wheel about” when the circuit requires (Woolf CR 218). Yet Peter and Clarissa share a potentially confusing
repetitive excursion regarding literary allusion to some famous lines by Sappho
( LP 31). This repetition of similar
scenarios but with transposed characterization and allusive source can be
regarded as chaotic.
a complex flashback, Clarissa recalls being “at some party … saying to the man
she was with, “Who is that?” and “she could remember going cold with
excitement”; having become aware of Sally Seton’s “extraordinary beauty,” her
thoughts allude to Sappho’s famous Greek poem: “He seems to me equal to gods
that man who opposite you sits and listens close to your sweet speaking and
lovely laughing …. No speaking is left in me … cold sweat holds me” (LP 31).
In Anne Carson’s translation,
Sappho’s speaker confronts “that man” who is a survivor who must be divinely
immortal unlike the speaker who seems near death (Carson Eros 12-13). Peter, similarly, relates an interconnecting
recollection of what may be the same occasion, apropos to the “translation” of
Sappho in the masculine voice of the famous version by Catullus 51 with
Clarissa located in Sally’s place: “He sat down beside [Miss Parry], and
couldn’t speak …. He made himself look across at Clarissa … She was talking to
a young man on her right” (MD 92).
Catullus cites the same passage from Sappho: “That man … the god’s superior who
sitting opposite; hears you … sweetly laughing which dispossesses poor me…
There’s no power left me.” Again, the duplicated form is essential to seeing
the similarity between Clarissa’s feminine allusion to Sappho and Peter’s
masculine reference to Catullus’s “Sappho” as translated by Guy Lee. The similarity between the artistic
recreations (Clarissa’s focus on Sally like Peter’s focus on Clarissa at the
same event) has the disorienting effect of the labyrinth like the duplicated
visits with Richard and Peter above.
obstacles to transparency emerge from time to time. There is conflicting
information about who called Richard “Wickham,” Clarissa or Sally. There is a
conflict of perspective when Elizabeth’s dress is thought pink or red,
depending on the observer. Curiously, Peter hears Big Ben sounding the
half-hour when he is on Victoria Street, then hears the bells of St. Margaret’s
strike at half-past seven according to Roll-Hansen commenting on Peter’s
“seven-league boots, and at last he finds himself in Trafalgar Square still at
half-past eleven (MD 72, 74, 78). The
temporal labyrinth, as devious as any multicursal maze, is guaranteed to be
disorienting. Even Mr Willett’s “summer time” is a facile manipulation (MD 245). Such variations in space and
time, combined with repetitions and duplications enhance the sense of lost
artistic landmarks of the labyrinth topos
clearly are “organizing patterns of convention, genre, and archetype” whose
revelation is subtle (Frye Critical Path 29). Literary conventions and allusions
to the labyrinth make “finding the pattern amid a mass of details” a difficult
undertaking (Culler 148). For instance, what is said of Mrs Dalloway (Clarissa)
may also be true of Mrs Dalloway (the
novel) although they are differently constituted as the novel quietly references itself (Hofstadter
691). Such instances involve obscure matters of verbal creation; writing, like
the aeroplane whose texts demonstrate labyrinthine confusion and bewilderment,
is sometimes unreadable without outside assistance. Helpful clues suggested by
ambiguous language, or even a reading which is inconsequential, irrelevant,
inappropriate or awkward may arouse writerly suspicions; such may assist in
apprehending the design of the labyrinth in a literary text since “great
literature too may appropriately by labyrinthine in artistry” (Doob 204). Some
of the deceptive maneuvers, however, offer to facilitate comprehension, lifting
veil after veil.
Just as Clarissa’s life involves a
labyrinthine complexity, its circuitous path, its circular structure, like that
of the labyrinth, will be seen beginning where it ends. The narrative brings
many loose ends together in the little room where she meditates on the death of
Septimus. Like Montaigne who would have relived the same life, Clarissa, too,
aspires to having her life over again, and asks herself earlier that day what
was she trying to recover; she finally admits she has lost herself in the
process of living but finds it again, “with a shock of delight” and feels she
must go back to the party and retrace her route (MD 12, 14, 282; CR 67).
This is as directly thematizing as threads marking their passage through the
maze. Peter Walsh offers some
guidance, remembering of Clarissa that formerly “she came into a room;
she stood, as he had often seen her, in a doorway with lots of people round
her. But it was Clarissa one remembered … there she was, however; there she
was” (MD 116).
His memory of something that has
happened before but also which interconnects with that which has not yet taken
place is seen as paradoxical when he utters the famous curtain line, “there she
was,” but which now appears in the middle of the discourse. Clarissa stands in
a doorway with lots of people round her at the end of her party when she
returns from the little room and she validates Peter’s reminiscence, “It is
Clarissa … For there she was” (MD
296). The novel ends just as it began with her coming through two doors at
once, one in Bourton and the other, simultaneously, at Westminster (MD 3). The circularity of her life is
apparent in the scene of her in a doorway, crossing a threshold, or passing
through an entrance into a new life or to live the same life again (Montaigne CR 67). Having thrice claimed she “must
go back” Clarissa anticipates the informing principle of the maze. She returns
to that door “with a little squeak of the hinges” yet remains within an elegant
structure of art.
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