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When the war broke out in 1914, everyone expected it to be over quickly, yet it lasted for four long years, claiming the lives of millions of young soldiers. Never had anyone seen such a brutal destruction before, and it was commoly referred to as the “Great War”. It had shaken whole Europe, affected the lives of both soldiers and civilians to a great extent. The dark image of devastation overshadowed all walks of life, including literature. Many poets, and civilians as well, who endured the horrors of the battlefields, turned to poetry and fiction in order to come to terms with their experiences. The War also influenced the works of artists living in the motherland, far away from the actual battles, yet for ever surrounded by the thought of it. Moreover, it remained in the centre of literary attention after it ended in 1918, and the most important works about the War and its long-term consequences were born in its aftermath.
Virginia Woolf, one of the most exciting figures of the early twentieth century’s literary life, was also highly influenced by the War. “The First World War as a catastrophic break, and as the event which shaped the twentieth century, overshadows Virginia Woolf’s work”, wrote Lee in her biography of the author (341). Virginia, who was just recovering from a serious nervous breakdown when the war broke out, had a day-to day, immediate experience of the war, which had been a tremendous shock to everyone. She was preoccupied with the question of art’s place in relation to the war, and even reviewed the works of war poets. Her opinion was clear: “We do not like war in fiction” (quoted in Lee 343). She and her closest friends in Bloomsbury Group took up an outsider, anti-war position. She thought that war was “a time when the constructive energies of our species sleep” (Gordon 163). However, the effect of the four years of destruction on her works cannot be denied. After coming to terms with the War, she became one of the most significant post-war artists. “Her books are full of images of the war”, as Lee observed (341).
Woolf’s fourth novel, which finally put her among the greatest talents of her time, Mrs Dalloway (first published in 1925 by Hogarth Press), is a “dramatic mixing of autobiography and history” (Lee 341). Set on a fine June day in 1923, the novel, which tells a woman’s whole life in one single day, is underlied by the dark idea of the War. There are no direct images, Woolf does not place her protagonists on some battlefield, yet it is crystal clear that the War plays a significant part in the story. It lives in dreams, madness and memories. The book is a strong criticism of the contemporary English society and tells a sad story about how the War can influence (and ruin) young lives. The characters can be grouped on the basis of their relationship to the War. “We see society devided between those who have profited from the war and those who, like Septimus Smith, have been destroyed by it” (Lee 342) While writing Mrs Dalloway, Woolf stated her aims clearly: “I want to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense” (quoted in Zwerdlig 120).
The first group, the ones who profited from the Great War, are the members of the governing class that controls society. Clarissa and Richard Dalloway, the “admirable Hugh”, Lady Bruton, and even Peter Walsh belong here. They are all “living on borrowed time” (Zwerdlig 121), their old-fashioned values had been shaken by the new century. They are clearly living in the past, they are crying over their long lost youths, loves and dreams uselessly. All these personal “tragedies” seem ridiculous and petite in comparison with the loss of hundreds of thousands young lives during the four years of the War. Besides being unable to communicate their feelings (for example, at one point of the story Richard Dalloway cannot even say he loves his wife), the governing class is also “incapable of reacting appropriatly to the critical events of their times” (Zwerdling 122). It seems they are not aware of the real significance of what had happened. They try to ignore the problems of the real word, wrap themselves up in oblivion and memories, they only care about their “little jobs at Court”, their trivial, everyday problems. For instance, Clarissa Dalloway is fully preoccupied with organizing her party, exaggerating its significance. The general problem of the governing class lies in the fact that they seem to have moved on too quickly. For them, the War is over and they ignore its evidently present consequences. When Clarissa takes a walk on a fine June morning – a walk, which (according to Lee 353) Virginia Woolf took herself during the War -, she is overwhelmed with the beautiful, lively city full of “whirling young men and laughing girls” (Woolf 9). Peter Walsh, freshly arrived from colonial India only sees the last five years’ fast growth of culture: “Never had he seen London look so enchanting” (Woolf 78).
For Virginia Woolf, all hope of a fresh New World is sunk because of the incapacity of the ruling class. As Zwerdlig wrote: “The hopes for a new society are betrayed by the return of the old” (122). There is heavy criticism in these words. The power is in the hands of old-fashioned, self-content, nonchalant people, a group that has the “influence to exclude the threatening forces and to protect itself from any sort of intense feeling” (Zwerdlig 122). That is why the people who are unable to control their feelings became outcasts: Miss Kilman and especially Septimus Smith. Their eccentricity cannot be stomached by a society governed by nineteenth century values.
The only character in the novel who had experienced the real horrors of the meaningless slaughter is Septimus Warren Smith, and he is the only one who had met death face to face. He has an important role in the story because it is through his character that the author can convey her message and draw attention to the unalterable and gruesome consequences of the War on every single individual. Through Septimus’ character “she studies the effect of four years of brutalization on an individual soldier” (Gordon 164). Septimus can be seen as the model of all those young, talented men whose lives had been taken or ruined for ever by the War.
Septimus started off as a promising, smart, idealistic young poet who was among the firsts to volunteer. “He went to France to save an England which consisted entirely of Shakespeare’s play and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” (Woolf 94). However, his sentimentalism and the bright future ahead of him were shattered at once when he experienced the inhuman destruction and the loss of a friend which affected his whole personality. “The last shells missed him” (Woolf 94) and he was sentenced to live.
Although he survived, he would never be the same again. Something inside him broke and the world made it happen. “â€¦his brain was perfect; it must be the fault of the world then – that he could not feel.” (Woolf 96) According to Gordon, Septimus suffers from mental isolation and lost “communication with the world outside” his mind (56). He lost faith in mankind as a whole: “human beings have neither kindness, nor faith” and “one cannot bring children into a world like this” (Woolf 97). This utter disappointment in the world surrounding him and absolute hopelessness entails the gradual loss of his sanity. “Having witnessed the war he wants no less than to change the world ” (Gordon 196). He takes on the role of the chosen one, a Messiah-like figure, in whose hands lies the redemption of mankind. Septimus sees himself as ” the greatest of mankind” (Woolf 30), “the lord of men” (Woolf 74), “a young man who carries the greatest message in the world” (Woolf 91). This is the only way in which he might be able to cope with the shock of the War. Having experienced the deepest filth of human nature (that is, killing without purpose), he feels it is his responsibility to redeem it. “I went under the sea. I have been dead, and yet am now alive.” (Woolf 76) His survival, the fact that his life had not been wasted in the battlefields, provided him with this sense of duty to convey the message of Universal Love.
Gordon sees the main source of Septimus’ insanity in “his inability to respond to the death of a person whom he had loved most in the world” (46), Evans, his senior officer. Septimus and Evans had an extraordinary bond between each other, a comradeship that can only be born under special circumstances, under the persistent threath of death, of being killed, of being lost and forgotten. The death of Evans made Septimus vulnerable and defenceless, his fragile mind was not able to take the pressure and finally wrecked. He becomes paranoid, he suffers from severe hallucinations in which his long lost friend visits him. “He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids.” (Woolf 77)
He cannot fit into the shallow, untrue mob of his time. Not that society is so eager to take him back. Not even the doctors understand. The two doctors appearing in the novel, Dr Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw, are the representatives of the contemporary British society, comfortably wrapped up in oblivion. They cannot identify the source of his illness. What is more, Dr Holmes claims that Septimus “…had nothing whatever serious the matter with him” (Woolf 26). Sir Bradshaw, the “priest of science” as Septimus’ wife called him at one point, can see his poor condition, his not having a “sense of proportion” (that is, sanity), but does not relate it to the horrors he endured during the War. He says his recovery is “merely a question of rest” (Woolf 105). This negative image of doctors’ inability to do something worthwhile may derive from Virginia Woolf’s own distrust of sciences and bad experience about sanatoriums. In 1910 she was forced to spend six weeks in a private nursing home, and later even the thought of getting back there drove her to commit suicide (Gordon 52). The very same thing happens in the novel: the people whose task would be to help the tormented soul were the ones to force Septimus into giving up his own life and jump out of a window. When it comes to the fall of Septimus, Woolf puts at least half of the blame on society. “â€¦sufferer and society share responsibility, though doctors blame him alone, particularly his resistance to their definitions of normality” (Gordon 61). Had the doctors been slightly more understanding, Septimus’ tragedy might not have been inevitable.
Rumor has it that originally Woolf did not want to include Septimus in the novel and planned to “kill” Clarissa Dalloway, but later she changed her mind, that is how the “madman” entered the story. Being himself a poet, Septimus could be seen as an allegorical character, his fate could be seen as the symbol of Art’s place during the war and its aftermath. The inhuman slaughter and the negligence of a pompous society made it impossible for the sensitive Septimus to get by and also for every artist to create freely, earnestly, without making compromises. As the Latin saying goes: “Inter arma silent Musae”.
In conclusion, we could say that one of the greatest strenghts of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is that by merging autobiographical and historical elements, she managed to criticise contemporary British society in a very subtle way, grapsing the flaws of its most typical figures, hiding her negative jugdements behind the story of an upper middle-class English housewife. In the novel, Woolf also set up a reminder to the memory of the millions and millions of human lives that had been or will be taken by cruelties of war.
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