The Novels of Virginia Woolf #4: Mrs. Dalloway

Along with my recent experiences of Woolf’s three earlier novels (it was striking how much more introspective it felt than Jacob’s Room, and obviously the time-compression of the main line of the narrative was different), three ideas other informed my reading.  Idea #1:

this quotation from the introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, his late, relatively conservative tract about political and ethical theory:

“Hic Rhodus, hic saltus.”

To apprehend what is is the task of philosophy, because what is is reason. As for the individual, everyone is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes. If a theory transgresses its time, and builds up a world as it ought to be, it has an existence merely in the unstable element of opinion, which gives room to every wandering fancy. With little change the above saying would read:
“Here is the rose, dance here.”

The barrier which stands between reason, as self-conscious spirit, and reason as present reality, and does not permit spirit to find satisfaction in reality, is some abstraction, which is not free to be conceived. To recognize reason as the rose in the cross of the present, and to find delight in it, is a rational insight which implies reconciliation with reality. This reconciliation philosophy grants to those who have felt the inward demand to conceive clearly, to preserve subjective freedom while present in substantive reality, and yet though possessing this freedom to stand not upon the particular and contingent, but upon what is self-originated and self-completed. (Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, trans. Dyde, 19).

This quotation, from a text that fairly elaborately defends something very similar to the worldview of Richard Dalloway (and, in declining order of sympathy, Clarissa Dalloway, Peter Walsh, Rezia Smith, and Septimus Smith, who would appear to be diametrically opposed to the Hegelian view),  helps raise a question for me about the overall vision of social life, thought, and reason that is or is not endorsed by Mrs. Dalloway.  Is this a book that endorses Hegel’s vision of social life, or one that serves as a critique of it?  Hermione Lee gets to the tensions in Clarissa’s vision of the world: “Clarissa recognizes an underlying unity of all things which can coexist with the privacy and integrity of the individual” (The Novels of Virginia Woolf, 107).  So another way to formulate the Hegel-related issue is – if Lee’s statement accurately summaries Clarissa’s view, does the narrative itself validate or criticize this view?  I do not think the answer is by any means as simply as saying that it satirizes Clarissa Dalloway’s world as shallow and trivial.

Idea #2: Woolf writes, in the Common Reader essay “Notes on an Elizabethan Play” about moments of those dramas crystallizing a certain type of experience – “Wandering in the maze of the impossible and tedious story suddenly some passionate intensity seizes us; some sublimity exalts, or some melodious snatch of song enchants” (57).  Woolf puts two such moments of “passionate intensity into Mrs. Dalloway, through quotations from Othello and Cymbeline.  A quotation, textual reference, or allusion can bear a lot of emotional weight, both in reading it, and in recalling it.  Such moments do a lot of structural work in Mrs. Dalloway.

Idea #3: Something from The Common Reader about Dostoevsky (in “The Russian Point of View”), and whose novels she has earlier in the essay characterized as “seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in.”:

But where are we? Surely it is the part of a novelist to inform us whether we are in an hotel, a flat, or hired lodging. Nobody thinks of explaining. We are souls, tortured, unhappy souls, whose only business it is to talk, to reveal, to confess, to draw up at whatever rending of flesh and nerve those crabbed sins which crawl on the sand at the bottom of us. But, as we listen, our confusion slowly settles. A rope is flung to us; we catch hold of a soliloquy; holding on by the skin of our teeth, we are rushed through the water; feverishly, wildly, we rush on and on, now submerged, now in a moment of vision understanding more than we have ever understood before, and receiving such revelations as we are wont to get only from the press of life at its fullest.  As we fly we pick it all up — the names of the people, their relationships, that they are staying in an hotel at Roulettenburg, that Polina is involved in an intrigue with the Marquis de Grieux — but what unimportant matters these are compared with the soul! It is the soul that matters, its passion, its tumult, its astonishing medley of beauty and vileness. And if our voices suddenly rise into shrieks of laughter, or if we are shaken by the most violent sobbing, what more natural? — it hardly calls for remark. The pace at which we are living is so tremendous that sparks must rush off our wheels as we fly. Moreover, when the speed is thus increased and the elements of the soul are seen, not separately in scenes of humour or scenes of passion as our slower English minds conceive them, but streaked, involved, inextricably confused, a new panorama of the human mind is revealed (emphasis added).

Woolf finds that for Dostoevsky, a relative lack of expository narrative actually works in the service of psychological acuity – a focus on “the soul” (which word is used dozens of times in Mrs. Dalloway).  For Woolf, this seems to be because our minds become “confused,” and the root meaning of this word (i.e., con + fused, that is, joined together – ), and not only its more usual sense of being lost or disoriented” seems important.  The moments of “passionate intensity” are a way of achieving this kind of mental con-fusion in Mrs. Dalloway, and serve as signposts in a way that more ordinary expository narrative might in another text.

Now, back to the Hegel idea.  Is this a novel about unity or about its failure?  In “Modern Fiction,” Woolf’s idea that a work of psychologically revealing fiction might set us free rather than, as she sees Joyce doing, leaving us trapped in a “bright but narrow room,” how does it interact with the entirety of Mrs. Dalloway?  Her critique of Joyce shares some similarities with Hegel’s critique of normative political theory, viz: “The barrier which stands between reason, as self-conscious spirit, and reason as present reality, and does not permit spirit to find satisfaction in reality, is some abstraction, which is not free to be conceived.”  Hegel’s “barrier” and Woolf’s “narrow room” are both spaces transcended by discovering interpersonal forms of unity missed by the atomizing trends of “egotistical” narration (Joyce) or liberal-individualist social theory (Hegel).  The experience of Clarissa Dalloway herself is certainly confused with that of Septimus, both because they seem to share some mental resonances, but also, textually, as they share both the Othello and Cymbeline compressed-moments.  And at the end, when she learns of Septimus’s death, Clarissa sees it as “her” disaster.  One way to understand this is to see the book as an expression of the underlying interpersonal unity of experience, a Hegelian celebration of the grand synthesis that is Clarissa’ status quo, especially because that synthesis, and the stability it represents, is an achievement for Clarissa (an achievement we are at least sometimes sympathetic towards), who veers towards instability, and arguably suicidal ideation at least twice.  But another way to see this is a critique of an imperialist middle-aged woman who imperiously insists that she can encapsulate the experience of everyone else, and so then, Septimus’s suicide stands as a radical criticism of her perception, and her fragile demand, that the world stand in unity with her.

Also in her essay on tue Russians, Woolf wonders whether “perhaps that is why it needs so great an effort on the part of an English reader to read The Brothers Karamazov or The Possessed a second time.”  The Possessed (known to us as Demons) is a book all about the con-fusion of different aspects of political and ethical life, and the way that seemingly mutually opposed forces (there, the village’s proletarian revolutionaries, the aristocratic Stavrogin’s instigation, and the village’s petit-bourgeois civic leaders) are actually mutually reinforcing, and how that all leads to a literal conflagration (a large section of the the village burns down) and several people are murdered [that summary makes the novel sound didactic and obvious – it is anything but].  In its own smaller way, the “fire” that is on Clarissa’s mind reveals the mutual dependence operating upon Clarissa and Septimus, but also the failure of Clarissa’s insistence on a Hegelian kind of unity.  There are contradictions teased out in the ethical life of Clarissa Dalloway’s London, contradictions which she haughtily draws together when she thinks that Septimus’s death makes her feel the “fun.”  

Maybe the “narrow room” idea isn’t that being “enlarged and set free” is something that just happens as a result of Woolf’s selected style.  Her claim (asked as a question) that Joyce’s style inhibits him from getting to that openness does not in fact imply that her adoption of a different style simply gets her there – it only means for Woolf, the interconnected, confused nature of this narrative is a necessary starting point because it reveals moments of radical separation, and reveals the feeble ways in which Clarissa Dalloway and her class try to draw Septimus’s experiences into their own.  We can also see this in Peter Walsh’s twice seeing and misunderstanding Septimus/Rezia -first as “evidence of young lovers’ quarrels” and second as a triumph of “civilization” that an ambulance comes to get him after he’s hurled himself onto spikes, as well as both doctors’ failure to take his condition seriously, AND Clarissa’s resenting that it interrupts her party).

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