Deeds are generally motivated by certain feelings. These can be of diverse natures: worry, joy, hurry, sense of duty or fear. So is the case of Virginia Woolf’s protagonist in Mrs Dalloway: Clarissa, already in her late middle age, has made different choices during years, by which she gained that life she is living through (or not) day-by-day. However, there is one key motivator which led her to lead that life she actually never wanted, and that is fear: “‘She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day,’ (11) and the lines quoted above come to portray her fear, now that the greater part of her life is over.”1 This feeling caused different acts of despair, for instance hiding true feelings or abandoning once to her very important people. Following this principle, this paper is going to analyse the various effects of fear which eventuated in Clarissa Dalloway’s life.
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To begin with, the next Shakespeare excerpt summarises perfectly her emotions when, as a young girl, she spent her summer at Bourton with her closest friends: “If it were now to die, / ‘Twere now to be most happy;”. This famous passage from Othello came into Clarissa’s mind when she came down the stairs and saw Sally, with whom she spent her happiest days at Bourton. Those days with Peter Walsh, with whom she also had a very intimate relationship (and who, indeed, wanted to marry her), and Sally Seton (whom she also loved, in her very own way), were most probably the happiest ones in her life, as the following lines also prove: “What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when […] she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm […] the air was in the early morning …”. She loved Bourton, and Peter, she loved Sally. However, she left them behind and took on the
1 – Rachman, Shalom. Clarissa’s Attic: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway Reconsidered.
Twentieth Century Literature: Vol. 18, No. 1, 1972, pp. 3-18.
role of an MP’s wife, having become, just as once Peter said, ‘The perfect hostess’. Indeed, she never even wanted to marry at all.
Those days were happy ones. By every indication, there was a time of true relationships and unspoiled daytimes. But something changed. This change was induced by Peter Walsh’s marriage proposal and his beg for Clarissa choosing him and a dangerous, intense life instead of a shallow, dull (and safe) life with Richard Dalloway. At this point, Clarissa told Peter that she were unable to lead such a life and “… did not marry Peter because his was the sort of nature that needs to share everything, because with him nothing would have been private. Richard’s great advantage was that marriage with him admitted of the possibility of the closed door.”2. Certainly, choosing this path was the easiest solution. Clarissa became the wife of Richard Dalloway but as the identity of “Clarissa” faded and got, in the end, lost, so came “Mrs. Dalloway” into existence and got more and more prevailing. This was the first loss Clarissa had to undergo – as fear from the unknown made her choosing such future prospects.
The next aspect considers the protagonist’s dread of the findings in a possible introspection in her own soul. According to this, she is visibly afraid of detecting the world of it and also the truth about it: that it is filled with fear, uncertainty and doubt. This state causes insecurity in her whole being, by which she needs confirmation from the outer world. She simply craved for acknowledgement: “How much she wanted it – that people should look pleased as she came in, Clarissa thought and turned and walked back towards Bond Street, annoyed, because it was silly to have other reasons for doing things.”3.
2 – Schaefer, Josephine O’Brien. The Three-Fold Nature Of Reality In The Novels Of Virginia Woolf. London – The Hague – Paris: Mouton & Co., 1965, p., 90
3 – Bennett, Joan. Virginia Woolf: Her Art as a Novelist. London: Cambridge University Press, 1964. p. 87.
Furthermore, to cover these ungrateful, hurting feelings, as she was severely afraid of being devastated by them, she created (as a means of self-defence of ones own) a perfectly ‘decorated’ world, in which silence stays hidden and is replaced with parties, exquisite clothes, glamour. Later, this false disguise will be thrown off by herself: “A thing there was that […] let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter.”. “She feels driven to give parties: so that life may not be wasted.”4 She is dependent on externals, thus, her every-days are part of a self-created illusion, where she got (over time) lost in it’s trivialities. To support this, the very first sentence from the novel may serve as the best example (as this is probably the best-known line from the book): “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”. By this choice, Mrs. Dalloway wants to show that she is needed and that her life cannot be meaningless or worthless – as this is one major concern of her. Consequently, she does this act out of fear, once again. As a result, every day, such as this one day in Mrs Dalloway is the perfect representation of a woman’s whole life since (it is already known) “the events of [the novel] take place during one day.”5 Serving as an illustration, the following lines depict a woman’s mediocre life even more clearly: “the factual everyday world for a woman, the most real thing, is the bottles and pans she washes, the sun she watches, the flowers she touches.”6 Although, at this point, seemingly beautiful features are listed (such as the ‘touching of flowers’ and ‘watching the sun’), under the surface lies still the unsolved crisis: the presence of repetition, dullness and triviality, which can only be abandoned when Clarissa later faces her dread.
4 – Schaefer, Josephine O’Brien. The Three-Fold Nature Of Reality In The Novels Of Virginia Woolf. London – The Hague – Paris: Mouton & Co., 1965, p., 91
5 – Velicu, Adrian. Unifying Strategies in Virginia Woolf’s Experimental Fiction. Stockholm (Sweden), Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1985, p. 43.
6 – Schaefer, Josephine O’Brien. The Three-Fold Nature Of Reality In The Novels Of Virginia Woolf. London – The Hague – Paris: Mouton & Co., 1965, p., 99
The following element to consider is Mrs. Dalloway’s fear from loneliness and death. “The first pause occurs when Clarissa returns from shopping. She learns from a note that her husband Richard has been invited, without her, to lunch at Lady Bruton’s. A sense of absolute aloneness descends upon her”7: “He has left me; I am alone forever, she thought”. This problem of her can be traced back to a previous one, in which she cannot bear the thought of being left alone with her own real thoughts. However, being ‘abandoned’ by Richard is what makes this happen, indeed.
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Moreover, there is already another source of concern which makes her sense of fear even worse. She knows that she and all her beloved ones get older and that one day they all will die. In spite of the fact that she is devoured by fear when thinking of ageing, mortality and dying, death has already reached her, in some sense, if we consider the fact that there are two ‘types’ of death: the so-called “death of the body” and the “death of the soul”8. Also, there are even more specific categories, such as the representation of “life in death” and the category of “death in life”9. In both groupings, Clarissa would belong to the second ones. She is not dead in the literally sense but as soon as she gave up her prospects to change the world with Sally, her unwillingness to marry and her philosophising nature, her soul died. This is another miserable feature she later admits to herself: “Even now, quite often if Richard had not been there reading the Times, so that she could crouch like a bird and gradually revive, […] she must have been perished. She had escaped.”. Thus, within the context of her seeming happiness (i.e. sunshine, flowers and parties) she is not alive any more. When she was young, she
7 – Schaefer, Josephine O’Brien. The Three-Fold Nature Of Reality In The Novels Of Virginia Woolf. London – The Hague – Paris: Mouton & Co., 1965, p., 87.
8 – Bécsy, Ágnes. Virginia Woolf világa. Dabas: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1980. p. 151.
9 – Bécsy, Ágnes. Virginia Woolf világa. Dabas: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1980. p. 153.
knew what life really was: true relationships, true friends – that meant Peter and Sally to her. But she was unable to undertake her own feelings and emotions. Coldness, arrogance and shallowness had overcome her – but not for good. As soon as the ‘death of the body’ reaches her (i.e. she gets to know on her party that a young man, respectively Septimus, has committed suicide) her mind begins to go through a change. First, when the Bradshaws began to tell that a young man has killed himself, she thought: “Oh! […] In the middle of my party, here’s death,”. But after a while, her thoughts shift to a different arena, as she continues: “[I] had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung [his life] away.” “This superstitious gesture stands as the […] symbol for the escape from real actions”10. Slowly, as she is thinking alone in the silence, she realizes that “death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death.”. Thus, she concludes it as a rest of being, an end of pain and not as something dreadful or to be in any way afraid of. By understanding the true meaning of death, she also realizes the significance of life: “There was […] the overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear.”. This recognition gave her a sentiment of pleasure and delight: “Odd, incredible; she had never been so happy.” She continues: “Nothing could be slow enough; nothing last too long. […] [She] lost herself in the process of living”. While her thinking of mortality and her life that vanished in its trivialities, she is getting it slowly back. She ’emerges’ from the dead and before
10 – Bécsy, Ágnes. Virginia Woolf világa. Dabas: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1980. p. 151.
going back to dinner, in the room opposite she suddenly spots the old lady at the window, who is watching her. What she saw, had ultimately taken her fear away. The woman looked happy, although she was not there in the tumult and the shouting of the party, although she was alone and in quiet – qualities that earlier gave rise to her fears. Then, when the old lady turned down her light behind the blind, those two lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline gained meaning – just as her own life: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages”. This line initiated the rebirth of ‘Clarissa’ – hence ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ faded away.
Miss Kilman once said to Elizabeth (when repeating the priest’s words they visited before) that people must at least once in a lifetime suffer great pain to be able to know what happiness is. Elizabeth’s answer to that was that she did not understand this since she has never experienced it. That day, Miss Kilman had no success in making herself understood. However, the daughter’s lacking virtue could also be found initially at her mother. Clarissa’s original problem was that she had no awareness of real pain, which often allowed her to make reckless decisions. If she would have known how much the … would hurt her, most likely she would have chosen another life. As a result, constant fear and the insecurity towards ones own being emerged and grew stronger as the years passed. Then, when she summoned up courage and decided to look face-to-face with her own fears, she was rewarded by fate: the ‘prize’ for her braveness was the epiphany and the defeat over fear itself. By this, the shallow character from the beginning (called ‘Mrs. Dalloway’) who assured her housemaid that ‘she would buy the flowers herself’ and, therefore, embodied the definition ‘triviality’ itself, transformed again into Clarissa, whose irradiation was again that of the Bourton years. This can be described most excellent with Peter Walsh’s closing thoughts: “…he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? – It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was.”
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