Friday, August 22, 2008

Mrs. Dalloway discussion: two

The London Walks of Mrs. Dalloway
by E.K. Sparks, Clemson University

This post will cover from the old woman singing outside the Regent’s Park Tube station at approximately noon to the narration leaving Elizabeth on the Westminster bus in the late afternoon. This middle third of the novel fleshes out many of the themes and begins to bring them together. [The map above traces the various characters' walks through London, highlighting the random encounters, near misses, parallel paths (separated by time), and original treks. Click on the link for the color key.]

The old woman opposite the Regent’s Park Tube station, ignoring everyone passing by, sings a song celebrating enduring love and life. She herself, we are told, “would still be there in ten million years” singing her song, escaping the effects of time. Peter Walsh pities her and gives her a coin, completely ignoring the song’s lyrics. Rezia feels sorry for her as well, but the song makes her happy. Many times in the book people define themselves or others by comparing themselves with others. Woolf repeatedly sets up comparisons and contrasts, such as the reaction of Peter and Rezia to this old woman. But she also illuminates the inner thoughts of characters as they define who they are in comparison to others. There are many parallels between the characters, and it is constantly pointed out that Septimus and Clarissa are “doubles” of each other, resembling the other in key ways. Yet it is where they diverge and are different that is of more interest to me.

Septimus’ madness is illustrated in much more detail in this section. His descent (often described as a descent into hell, directly or in allusions to Dante’s Inferno) into madness comes after he begins to process what has happened in the war. He had numbed himself to his friend Evans’ death, but as he comes to terms with it he loses all bearing and “overfeels”. The allusions to Dante seems fitting since Septimus even though not at the middle of life, has found himself in a dark wood and has lost his path. Septimus begins to see human nature as solely evil, believing people capable of good deeds only in order to feel pleasure. Because he can reason, he reasons, the fault must lie with humanity in general. Humanity’s evil, to him, is essential…as primary and defining as the fact that we all must die. Dr. Holmes, the first doctor Septimus agrees to see, believes nothing is wrong with the patient other than needing to think beyond himself. Septimus sees Holmes as the personification of evil human nature, more interested in Rezia than he is his patient who is only in a "funk". Sir William Bradshaw believes Septimus only lacks a sense of proportion. Rezia has unreasonable expectations that there is an immediate cure for her husband. Woolf does not shy away from the poor treatment of the mentally ill, where doctors are lauded for segregating patients from families and society.

Septimus is a stark contrast with the other characters, but the similarities he shares with them highlights the thin line between sanity and madness while his insights call many of their actions into question. Clarissa admits to herself that she feels some depression now and then, but she is able to muddle through. Both characters are damaged by the war, Septimus from losing his close friend and Clarissa from the influenza outbreak after it. Yet there is a divergence between the two characters: Septimus tries to stand outside any connections with people (turning deep within himself as well as communicating with his dead friend Evans) while Clarissa believes that a connection with other people is the very essence of life. The pleasure she felt at the start of the book was from the bustle of London, the life that the movement and noise represented. Her parties are a celebration (“an offering”) recognizing that outlook. With the human connection, death is “unbelievable”…not that it won’t happen but that the recognition and relationship with others buoys us up and keeps us going. Death is also unbelievable because people and events still live on in our memory regardless of what has happened since then. Clarissa does good acts “for the sake of goodness”, not because of Septimus’ cynical pleasure principle. He may not be completely wrong, but his focus is on the motives and not the actions, denigrating positive outcomes even though they might come from questionable intent. Are the benefits from Lady Bruton’s causes or Hugh Whitbread’s humble reforms or Lady Bradshaw’s interests negated because they might be done for selfish reasons?

The ties between people are thin threads (at best) “which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner as they walked across London; as if one's friends were attached to one's body…by a thin thread, … as a single spider's thread is blotted with rain-drops, and, burdened, sags down.” So if we accept Clarissa’s belief that human connections are the essence of life, does Lady Bruton’s thin thread theory threaten that essence? Woolf seems to be saying yes but there are ways to strengthen or reinforce the thread. Clarissa obviously believes increased connection or interaction helps, her parties are a prime exhibit. Communication is an important part of that connection…the misassumptions, misunderstandings and misjudgments of the characters threaten various connections. Characters often misunderstand themselves, making recognition of others much more difficult. Unspoken communication plays an important role at several points since the motive or meaning of the spoken word is questioned. [One suggestion for those new to the book—if you read Mrs. Dalloway, highlight every time roses appear and see what they have to do with contact between people or anchoring a character with reality.]

These ties between people are also important since the influence of other social institutions appears to be waning. Marriage, one of the ultimate connections between people, has many more negative examples than positive. Since Woolf uses Shakespeare as a major motif in the novel, I guess it only appropriate that she echoes him in her examples. The gulf between many of the partners leads to isolation, turning love to "a destructive force". Religion is almost non-existent in the book as most characters announce their atheism or at least hint at it. Miss Kilman is both the most religious and most repellant character. While I don’t believe she is intended to symbolize religion, she does highlight the oppression possible from perverting it. Christianity has a calming influence on her, but only to tolerable levels. Presented in a similar manner is the potential replacement for religion—science, in the guise of psychiatry. Sir William Bradshaw, a likeable enough person, becomes more monstrous as you read his inner thoughts. His insistence on control and dominance distorts what he really intends by proportion. As far as problems of the state, I’ll save that for the next post. Strengthening the ties between people, as Clarissa tries to assist with her parties, substitutes for the social institutions failing the human condition. The darkness just beyond our own consciousness needs blunting in order to avoid Septimus’ complete dissolution.

Time continues to be a major factor, “shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing,” nibbling at the day. The rhythm of the day as well as the image of the clocks emphasizes the circular nature of time, yet time moves forward as well. Time is the definitive glacier, picking up debris as it moves and carves, depositing things far away from their original source. Once again, characters reflect back on a particular point in the past, highlighting how much has changed over the years. Time erases the memory of those who have died, as Richard reflects that the “thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shoveled together” were “already half forgotten.”

And time is what I’m out of, so I will try and pull together a few more of the major themes and motifs in the last post on the book. I also hope to review the 1997 movie version and see how successfully it conveys the messages or the book.

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