Mrs Dalloway and the War

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This article seeks to present, briefly, how the First World War and especially its consequences, are inserted in Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, through the work of representation of memory. The writer, an exponent of English modernism, aims, in her works, to place subjectivity on the scene and, therefore, privileges the details and aspects that, apparently, do not have importance in the narrative. It is not the external events themselves that are in focus, but the effects of them on individuals and the way they are revived through the work of memory.

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In this sense, some scenes of the novel will be analyzed, especially those that are related to Septimus, soldier traumatized by the war.

This paper intends to expose the work of memory representation in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1966), especially with regard to the presence of war in the daily lives of the characters through traumatic memories. The writer, exponent of English Modernism, stands out, as well as Joyce and Proust, not only for experimentalism in the way of narrating, but also for the use of the “”narrative modes of subjectification””, as Sarlo points out (2007: 18). These authors put on the scene the “”stories of everyday life””, in which “”[…] the past becomes a picture of customs in which details, originalities, exception to the rule, curiosities that are no longer they find in the present “”(SARLO, 2007, p.17).

Woolf published his first novel The Voyage Out in 1915, but it is only in 1922, with Jacob’s Room, his third novel, that she starts to realize experimentalism in her fiction, which is consolidated and consecrated in Mrs. Dalloway (1966) published in 1925 and perhaps the author’s most read novel. In addition to novels, the author has written several short stories, reviews and theoretical and critical essays that contribute greatly to the understanding of the literature of that time and, above all, her own works, as can be seen in both volumes of The Commom Reader. There are also some works on the condition of women, especially the artist, such as “”Professions for Women”” and “”Room of One’s Own””, one of the most important works in feminist studies, and there are those that deal more directly with wars, like Three Guineasi and “”Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid”” .

For the present work, some scenes of Mrs. Dalloway (1966) will be analyzed, having as presuppositions the studies on memory of Sarlo (2007), Past time, in particular with respect to what the author called “”subjective turn”” that is, the recognition of the relevance of normal subjects and their trajectories. Some notions of Freud’s (1996a; 1996b) theories on memory and trauma will be presented, as well as the re-reading by Derrida (2005), which expands some Freudian concepts related to the subject at hand. We will try to highlight the differentiated form as Woolf, through the techniques of the Flow of Consciousness, deals with external events, in this case, the chaos and violence of wars.

Mrs. Dalloway (1966) takes place on a Wednesday in June 1923, five years hence after the end of World War I, which is portrayed in the text through the reminiscences of the characters. In the novel, there are basically two opposing reactions to the effects of the conflict: on the one hand the nobles, aristocrats, who take pride in their homeland and keep England as a strong nation; on the other hand, those traumatized by war, those in which the psychological wound was as profound as that suffered during the battles.

It is Clarissa Dalloway who initiates the narrative when leaving to buy flowers because of the party that would give the night in its house in the district of Westminster. On the way between her residence and the floriculture, the character walks the streets of London, observes people and places and, starting from these external elements, makes memories that acquire a new meaning in the present moment and offer important reflections. These continue when the protagonist is already back home in the midst of preparations for the celebration.

Mrs. Dalloway focuses on the life and fate of Septimus Warren Smith, a war-torn soldier who lives haunted by the memory of his friend Evans’s death in front of him during a bombing attempt to overcome the traumatic experience of war and death. However, he finds no hope in this desolate world, for he can not connect with other people or reconcile his literary preoccupations and ambitions in the post-war disenchantment environment.

Soon in the first scene, it is possible to note that it is the small details and external events that bring deep memories and reflections. As she headed to the flower shop, Clarissa stopped for seconds on the curb, waiting for the moment to cross the street. The external event is minimal, however, reflections that do not seem to deal with anything very important bring information that will guide the whole narrative. First, there is the fact that Clarissa has lived in Westminster, a district of London, for approximately 20 years. It is also known that she is very ill, a fact that may be mentioned in the narrative only two more times, but without details about what is illness – here is a hint that she has a problem in her heart. However, this is important information, as it emphasizes themes dear to Woolf as aging and death in the midst of life:

“” For having lived in Westminster how many years now? over twenty,? one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes.iii (WOOLF, 1966, p. 6) “”

Further on, one can also observe the city of London from the early nineteenth century, vibrating with development and agitation. It is also seen that the war is over, but its effects are still in the memory, whether as the celebration of Clarissa Dalloway’s speech or as a lamentation of those who have not yet recovered:

“” For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven ? over.iv(WOOLF, 1966, p. 6-7) “”

It is this way of treating the war that permeates the narrative: data are subtly released and only as far as individuals are concerned; there is no mention of concrete facts, such as ‘what happened in a particular battle’, and so on. In other words, the novel brings an interesting picture not of what was reported in the newspapers, but of what society was trying to hide: many who were called heroes after World War I became insane, and the society that prided itself on them in manifestations and tributes, in fact, wants to remove them from the social life, since these individuals disturb the image of the English nation.

Freud (1996a, p.163), in Recall, Repeat and Elaborate, points out that the process of remembering is a way of “”filling the gaps of memory””, since, through the repetition of what has been forgotten, the individual can elaborate a new meaning for the present. Thus the internal impressions in Mrs. Dalloway (1966) are shown, in most cases, in a scrambled way, because temporality in the novel follows the precepts of memory; it is through it that the reader becomes aware of the most important events.

In the novel, what seems to have no importance, detail, is what fills the gaps, since what appears to have been left out or implicitly presented by the narrator can carry the deeper revelations. This is due to the fact that, as has been said, the significance is not immediate; the external events raise memories that dig the mind of the characters. It is interesting to note that this work a posteriori, similarly, is similar to what Derrida (2005) calls a supplement, and which takes place from “”[…] deposits of a meaning that was never present, whose present meaning is always reconstituted later, nachtr?¤glich, subsequently, further […] “”(DERRIDA, 2005, p.200).

The way Septimus became aware of the atrocities he and the other British soldiers committed is an example of the strategy of the supplement, since, as will be seen in more detail in the following section, at the time of war, Septimus could not understand what really happened. This is due to their lack of experience, ingenuity and, mainly, the manipulation undertaken by the English authorities. However, reiterating that the work of representing memory prompts the emergence of new meanings to an event that has already occurred, one can think of Sarlo’s (2007) observation regarding the repression of some dangerous memory: “”A family, a state, a government can uphold the ban; but only in an approximate or figurative way it is eliminated, unless all the subjects who carry it are eliminated. “”(SARLO, 2007, p.10).

From this brief exposition, it is possible to perceive that the traumatic experience is not expressed in Woolf in the same way as an adventure story, as Adorno (2003, 56) notes: “”Just realize how impossible it is for someone who has participated in the war, to narrate this experience as before a person used to tell his adventures. “” However, what the authorities want is oblivion; however, through Septimus, Woolf shows the impossibility of a fact simply to be lost in the memory and to highlight the effects that repression causes on the human mind.

The excerpts studied reveal the accurate technique of woolfian experimentalism that uses some of the techniques of the novel of flow of consciousness as the indirect interior monologue, in which the narrator, through comments, descriptions and reminiscences, exposes the inner world of the character and presents to the reader the facts as if they came directly from the consciousness of the character, giving voice to the thoughts of this one. There is also the free association of ideas, showing points of view composed or different of the same theme (multiplicity), in addition to manifesting the coexistence of feelings and actions. (Humphrey, 1959)

It is not, therefore, a simple remembrance that serves, for example, only to clarify a fact or a character; nor should it be said that it is a narrative in the past. Through the work with the narrative, Woolf exposes how the past erupts in the minds of the characters, through the work of memory, and modifies the present. As Sarlo (2007, p.12) points out,

The “”visions of the past”” (according to Benveniste’s formula) are constructions. Precisely because past time can not be eliminated, and it is a persecutor who enslaves or liberates, its irruption in the present is understandable insofar as it is organized by narrative procedures, and through them, by an ideology that evidences a significant continuum and interpretable time.

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Mrs Dalloway and the War. (2019, Jan 02). Retrieved from