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6 December 1993
In her novel Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf addresses the inability of her characters to adequately communicate with one another. Signs lose their meaning, people become deaf and scared, confusion and mystery dominate the public. Several characters entrench themselves in extricably in the past, and cannot find commonality with others in the present. They carry the baggage of their younger, prewar years, and find themselves and each other disillusioned and alienated failures, afraid to move forward, to risk further failure. The only unmistakable sign, Time rings loudly, steadfastly, as these jaded people age and wither. Other characters busy themselves merely with judging the habits, manners, and insufficient accomplishments of those who surround them. This attitude binds them in a cynical egoism that not only reduces their capacity for sympathy and caring, but also lessens the content of their own persona. Their com munication degenerates into an often malevolent, always empty, gossip; a gossip not just about people, but about dry ideas and inconsequential behavior. It is a phenomenon which, for pur poses of discussion, and for lack of a better word, can be termed incommunication, since it does not involve lies or misunderstanding, but rather a fundamental lack of content and meaning. Younger people in the novel find difficulty communicating with the older generation, an im passe that seems to result in a sullenness and disillusionment of their own. The young further find a discomforting cryptic element in the language and action of their elders that illustrates the essentially futile or meaningless nature of the elders generation’s incommunication. Their predecessors seem to pass down not only a world ailing from a savage war, but a means of dis course that is insignificant and sterile. The only times when a multitude of people come together is in the midst of a spectacle: Big Ben chimes, a car backfires, an airplane writes in the sky, a party blossoms. But even at these events, people are unable to communicate. They mis understand signs, they yearn for greater meaning, they gawk, conjecture, and disagree. Finally,
all these problems converge at Mrs Dalloway’s party, a gathering of people who continually have failed to express themselves, to “simply say what one felt” (191). At the public occasions and the private part, it seem as nothing or no one can get through the barriers of incommunica tion people construct around themselves. Septimus Smith, perhaps the ultimate victim of in communication, finding no one capable of understanding him, withdraws into himself and com mits an act which finally breaks the skindeep shell of Clarissa Dalloway’s party. Septimus’ suicide initially terrifies but later reassures Mrs Dalloway as she grasps the mortality and failed communication previously “obscured in her own life” (184), allowing her to end day with a heightened awareness of the beauty and the fun. Until that moment, Woolf’s use of spectacle and randomly assembled crowds anticipates the lack of understanding and communication which permeates the novel, especially in the final scenes at the party. Because the action of the novel is limited to a single day, the notion of time plays a prominent role. The booming chimes and music of the clocks follow and surround each of the characters in their urban travels, and remind them of their debt to time. This sound seems al most universal in its message, but it is not an unambiguous one. The happiness they knew in their younger years has faded for many of the characters, who now emerge as sentimentalists. The halfhourly bells communicate a ambiguous sentimentalism: they simultaneously reaffirm life while signaling the steady, unstoppable march of time that may summon a sour vision of the future. Woolf suggests the dual nature of these bells when she first describes their sequence as “first, a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable” (4). The irrevocability of time does much to make the characters in the novel overly sentimental. As the day, progresses, more and more characters communicate through their past. That is what they have in common. That is when they were happy, or at least happier. Only occasionally do they concentrate on the music, rather than the boom. Those who do concentrate on the music, momentarily, may be so enraptured in themselves, they project their happiness onto those who surround them. It is perhaps her way of relating to those with whom she shares no connection. By manufacturing an artificial one, she is able to continue her illusion of legitimate contact with people outside her immediate social
circle. “The leaden circles dissolved in the air,” she observes. As Mrs Dalloway hears the chimes, she bubbles over in a joie de vivre of “of creating every moment afresh” (4), and looking around, she quickly assumes that “the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps...do the same” (4). This reaction to the bells indicates a larger blindness on Mrs Dalloway’s part which becomes more evident in her later interactions with other people. The next sign Clarissa encounters in the public arena is less routine than the bells, and therefore causes a greater confusion. Woolf skillfully illustrates the cult of the spectacle in her discussion of the group psychology that responds to the sudden backfire of a car. The reaction of the crowd suggests the mundane nature of their collective life, the stale mediocrity with which they pass through each day. The backfire hatches excitement and mystery, it immediately births a community of the quiet and desperate, it connects the crowd in an enterprise of identifi cation and fame. Their lives are so bland and in need of stimulation, they have developed a propensity to “perceive instinctively that greatness was passing” (18), as though their survival depended on these morsels of curiosity. Most important, the sight of the car gives them a com monality, a topic for conversation. The people who witness the spectacle of what appears to be the “Proime Minister’s kyar” (14) have together experienced an anomaly that transcends the sonic shot and enters into the realm of the sublime, the “magical” (17). The event, as well as the face in the window, assumes the grandeur that accompanies great, mysterious spectacles. “Passersby who, of course stopped and stared, had just the time to see a face of the very greatest importance...Everything had come to a standstill...Everyone looked at the motor car. Septimus looked. Boys on bicycles sprang off. Traffic accumulated” (15). And, similarly to the way Clarissa projects her happiness onto the bums of the London streets, there is opportunity for a figure to believe the crowd revolves around him. Septimus’ paranoia is his way of relating to the mass, of processing external disorder into something terrifying, yet somehow more perversely comforting. His blunt statement of narcissism serves as a perfectly fitting introduc tion to Septimus: “It is I who am blocking the way” (15). Septimus searches for meaning in all this spectacular disorder, and he looks into himself and the world around him for answers. His
is the enduring question, “What does it mean?” He wonders, “Was he not being looked at and pointed at; was he not weighted to the pavement, for a purpose. But for what purpose?” These questions eventually consume Septimus. He immerses himself in their answers and meanings, searching for a feasible way of communicating his discoveries. He communicates through a per secution complex (“The world has raised its whip; where will it fall” 14) that is encased in an extreme egotism. He will come to believe that his answers are the only answers, his meaning, the only meaning. For Septimus (and for Woolf), the spectator becomes the spectacle. The third grand event that captures Mrs Dalloway’s attention that morning is the sky writing airplane. It is a painter of ephemeral signs in the air that mean different things to different people. The crowd’s reaction to the airplane attests to their eagerness to unlock cryptic symbols from authority figures. That the writing inhabits the heavens may be Woolf’s commentary on the state of modern religion, but it also points to the remarkable inability of people to communicate, even when it involves five letters, each 200feet tall. Clarissa and the crowd gather again to witness the affair. With a reaction seemingly borrowed from the back firing car crowd, the airplane crowd ceases activity except to gaze. “Everyone looked up,” and they, too, are dazed, “awestricken,” and behave “like...sleepwalker[s]” (20). As the plane twists and turns above, the crowd begins to decode the message. They doggedly pursue the word as though they were attempting to nail down the Tetragrammaton, guessing alternately “Glaxo”, “Kreemo”, and “Toffee” (20). This event offers yet another commonality as it temporarily distracts the audience from the eleven bells of Big Ben and the banality of their common lives. Even the dignitary’s car falls back into anonymity (21). The crowd wants to believe in the significance of the event. It wants to understand this happening as a signal to them, as something larger than their lives, like the royalty being shuffled away in a limousine. The people fail to understand it for what it is: an advertisement enjoining them to take part in a commodious lifestyle. For them, it must be an effort of magnificent secrecy and magic. “Certainly so it was — a mission of the greatest importance” (21).
This conception is not far from — indeed it is dangerously close to — Septimus’ interpretation of the event. Shrouded by the anonymity of being a Smith in London, and of simply being in London, Septimus yearns for recognition. While his wife beckons him to “Look, look” (21) he wants people to notice him, to indicate that his life after the war retains some meaning. Septimus needs have contact with people to share his ideas before they either wither or explode inside him. He is strangely aware of this failure to communicate, but hopes some exterior being will rescue him from his misery and confusion. All that surfaces, however, is more confusion in the form of a skywriting airplane, and he is left to decode the language. The language for Septimus begins to move beyond “actual words.” Instead, it takes on a heavier significance, one built on abstractions and ideas. His movement in that direction, away from concrete objects and actions, is what frightens Mr Bradshaw and Mr Holmes of “human nature.” They ask Lucrezia to play the game “Look” with her husband, as though constant identification of real things will translate into constant identification with real things. Septimus’ resistance to this indicates his comfort in the abstract zone, and his lack of need to reify his notions. His communication is somehow more pure, because it does not require the translation of thought to word. “Beauty” for example is not contained in arbitrary letters or words, but in an idea and an action. Septimus thinks, looking up, “They are signaling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty” (21). The prospects of this, Septimus realizes, are inexhaustible and joyous. He suddenly discovers a beauty in life he had not know before, but it is incommunicable. Still, he is able to rejoice in it. As he experiences this cumulative epiphany of form and idea, “tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signaling their intention to provide him for nothing, forever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty!” (22). This beauty clashes with its inexpressibility to others. Doctors think he is insane, his maid laughs at his ramblings, and his own wife, the only person who might understand, barely
has enough English to keep up with his ramblings (“She heard nothing” 140). With no one to talk to, and having found this beauty outside of reality, Septimus generates a solipsistic world of his own unenterable, except by force. Pulled back into himself, Septimus becomes unable to feel, to empathize with anyone. And neither can they empathize with him, since his world view is so radically different. He is aware of the danger he poses to himself in thinking this way, and he translates that into his persecution complex. “What was his crime? He could not remember it” (98). As though he were strewn on the rack by inquisitors, he chants “Communication is health; communication is happiness; communication —”, but he speaks only to himself. He searches for an escape from his tormentors, a way of addressing them in their own terms. “But what if he confessed? If he communicated? Would they let him off then, his torturers?” (98). It is too late to know by the tome Holmes, “a powerfully built man” enters. He communicates through his strength, a mode as empty as gossip. This method of “human nature” terrifies Septimus. He refuses to surrender, to express himself as Holmes does. Septimus’ ultimate act captures his frustration and serves as his final statement. His crime is that he “felt nothing,” (90) and said nothing. By Sally Seton’s logic, this makes sense. It is she who suggests “One must simply say what one felt” (191). The terrible irony of Septimus’ persecution is that while he feels nothing and says nothing, so many other characters, especially at the party, feel nothing, yet speak volumes. Peter Walsh describes the party as “mere gossip” (161). He is accurate, as Woolf goes on to portray old men and women talking of inconsequential empty matters. “Everybody is the room has six sons at Eton” (189) Peter tells Sally, and they go on to talk about either the good old days or other people in the room. Professor Brierly “wasn’t hitting it off with little Jim Hutton” (176) as the elder discusses Milton. Richard says distractedly, “Yes, they do...Yes” and wonders “What more [can] one say?” (170). People generally restrict themselves to talk of “cricket, cousins, the movies” (177). It is an empty spectacle, people gathering to look at one another, discuss one another, revel in their egotism and disdain. They are as wrapped into themselves as Septimus, yet the profundity of their theories could never approach the grandness of his. The
party proceeds in dreary malaise for even Clarissa, until the arrival of the Bradshaws. They visit death upon the party, forcing Clarissa into selfstudy, a realization of her own mortality. Suddenly, “a thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter” (184). The intrusion of death into the party creates a post facto spectacle, in which the Bradshaws spare no detail. It shakes Mrs Dalloway into understanding what was “obscured in her own life.” She shares something with Septimus, she comprehends the nature of his action. “Death was an attempt to communicate.” She sees Septimus as unable to express himself, unable to overcome talk of cricket, cousins, and movies. His “death was defiance.” That death escapes surrounding people, it does not pull them together. “Closeness drew apart...One was alone.” Clarissa discovers that “there was an embrace in death,” an embrace of one’s self (184). It is with this new perspective that Clarissa engages the rest of the party. She overcomes a sense of Septimus’ death and her subsequent hosting of a party as “her disaster[,] her disgrace” (185) and comes to “[feel] somehow very like him” (186). The same irrevocability contained in Big Ben’s chimes, the march of time, strikes her at the party. “The leaden circles dissolved in the air...She must go back to [Sally and Peter” (186). With them, she will “feel the beauty...feel the fun” (186), just as Septimus did in decoding the skywriting. The death of Septimus leaves something with Mrs Dalloway. It brings her out of her party to fulfill one of her old theories: “One must seek out the people who completed them” (152). For the first time in the novel, a spectacle contributes to a character and inspires a true communication. Clarissa, inspired by the death of Septimus, seeks out Sally and Peter to com plete herself. It is this revivified, whole Clarissa who excites Peter in the closing words. Peter, at last feels something, and perhaps will be able to communicate with her.
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