Mrs. Dalloway

by Pericles Lewis

In Virginia Woolf‘s novel  Mrs. Dalloway (1925), the trauma of the war plays an even more explicit role than in Jacob’s Room (1922), as one of its two protagonists, Septimus Smith, is a veteran suffering severe bouts of mental illness (which Woolf modeled on her own experiences). He has visions of his dead comrade Evans and experiences epiphanies: “Men must not cut down trees. There is a God. (He noted such revelations on the backs of envelopes).” Septimus’s wife Rezia makes futile efforts to comprehend and treat his illness. His fear of being locked up by pompous psychiatrists eventually leads Septimus to commit suicide.

The novel progresses through two apparently unrelated plots—one concerning Septimus’s illness and eventual suicide, the other concerning Mrs. Dalloway’s preparations for a party, which the Prime Minister will attend. Although characters related to each plot pass each other on the streets of London during the course of the novel, the novel achieves its real unity only in its conclusion, when Mrs. Dalloway learns of Septimus’s death from his psychiatrist (one of the guests at her party) and feels a strange sympathy for him. It seems that the knowledge of his death prevents Clarissa from committing suicide herself. This conclusion is troubling. During the war, it was said that a certain intellectual (in one version of the story Lytton Strachey), when asked why he was not fighting to save civilization, would answer, “I am the civilization for which you are fighting.”[1] There might seem to be an element of this view in Woolf’s novel. Mrs. Dalloway does suggest that the poor soldier’s suffering and death somehow redeem the apparently trivial life of the hostess, who entertains nobility and politicians, the “old men” that post-war society held responsible for the war.

Yet Woolf also seems to be criticizing the logic that would justify Septimus’s death as worthwhile, a fair price to pay for “civilization.” Woolf called her novel an “elegy,” that is, a lament for the dead, but she was skeptical of the traditional elegy’s consolations, which she suspected of falsity. In her novel, the living go on living, and they must recognize that the civilization that permits them to do so is the same one that allowed millions to die in the war.[2]

  1. ↑ Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: the First World War and English Culture (London: Bodley Head, 1990), p. 244.
  2. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 113.