“Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf
Clarissa, the socialite and respected wife of an upper-class Parliament member shared more in common with the Lower-Class, shell-shock inflicted veteran Septimius than either of them may have realized. Throughout the novel, we see Clarissa preparing for her party later that evening and we see Septimius navigating through his day with a severe mental disorder. During this, we see vast similarities in their personalities and perspective despite their different social status. While they never actually meet face to face in the novel, we can see the vast similarity between them regarding their dissatisfaction with their lives, and their obsession with death due to it.
Woolf sets the readers up to compare the characters from the beginning of the novel when she describes their appearances in a similar way, Clarissa is described as “”having a touch of a bird about her””, “”and very white”” (4) while Septimius is written as “”pale faced”” and having a “”beaked nose.”” (14) There are also instances where Clarissa considered her intuition of “”knowing people almost by instinct”” as her “”gift””, and Septimius thinking how he “”could see people making up lies as they passed in the street. He knew all their thoughts,”” and he knew everything He knew the meaning of the world”” (66). We see their shared trait of their perceived intuitiveness. They are constantly judging people by the way they look. Upon seeing each other for the first time in a while, Clarissa thinks his face is “”a little thinner, probably dryer”” and he thinks she looks “”much older”” (40) instantly.
However, a vast difference is seen in the way both characters view life when a mysterious in the two characters way of thinking as a car driving down Bond Street appears. Clarissa has a positive reaction as she spots the car and immediately is in awe wondering if the Queen might be inside. A paranoid reaction is displayed by Septimius when sees the car, as his PTSD causes him to be paranoid as he thinks it is going to explode and burst into flames. Clarissa is a character who is still life despite some of the setbacks she feels has experienced in her life while Septimius thinks everything is doomed and continues to suffer in his own world he seems to be living in.
On the other hand, both characters share a similar dislike of the society they reside in. Woolf created these characters as each other’s’ alter ego from different classes and circumstances. The suppression of emotions and feelings in the modern times and circumstances is prevalent in the book and both characters fall under the pressures of this society. Clarissa navigates a world that includes her choosing her devoted husband Richard over her former lovers Peter Walsh and Sally Seton for a better reputation in society. Richard was a member of the parliament, which granted her a better quality of life than a life with Peter and society wouldn’t have accepted her for being in love with a woman. She has chosen to conform to meet societal expectations and now has unexpressed desires, and is forever, “”mending her dress; playing about; going to parties; running to the House and back and all that”” (41) to fill that hole in her. Septimius on the other hand, is battling PTSD, or shell shock from the aftermath of the war that no one around him understands. He is paranoid of everything, and believes the world is at its worst, he thinks “”The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?”” (14). He chooses to commit suicide rather than covert to societal norms he refuses to submit further to the cruelties of the modern society.
All these issues in both characters life have caused them a sense of alienation that Woolf depicts through rich nature imagery. For Clarissa, we see flowery imagery from the start of the novel. Clarissa describes flowers as having a “”earthy garden sweet smell”” and having “”the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness”” which she lets soothe her (13). However, when her husband Richard bought flowers for his wife, it was to convey his feelings for his wife which he “”never does say”” to her (115). The flowers represent a lack of passion from Richard, and the different responses to the flowers represent the mismatch and miscommunication between them which consequently is part of the cause of Clarissa’s alienation.
Septimius’s alienation is also described with the help of nature imagery, he thinks to himself “”Miracles, revelations, agonies, loneliness, falling through the sea, down, down into the flames, all were burnt out, for he had a sense, as he watched Rezia trimming the straw hat for Mrs. Peters, of a coverlet of flowers (142). Here, Septimius’s mental health has caused him loneliness and suicidal thoughts and used water and fire to represent them and he is accompanied by his wife. He is with her, but as she does not understand her, there is similar miscommunication to Clarissa and Richard’s relationship.
The comparison between them both Is wrapped up in the conclusion of the novel where Clarissa reacts to Septimius’ suicide. She has a strong reaction to his death and considers it “”her disaster-her disgrace”” (185). She Is pained as Septimius got to die after suffering while she had to continue to live on and suffer. She understands why he did it and she “”felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.”” (186). She shows a sort of admiration for him, considering his circumstance. She feels Septimius committed suicide “”holding his treasure”” (184)- or his soul. She appreciated his defiance to society and that he chose to rather die than succumb to society’s pressure. His death made appreciate and “”feel the beauty”” of life and she deicides she “”must assemble”” back to her party to continue with her life (186). This is certainly a change from her depressive thoughts and attitude towards life she had previously.