Bodily Resistance in “Mrs. Dalloway”
Chronicling the rituals of daily life amidst the instability of postwar British society, Mrs. Dalloway is riddled with representative paradigms of the complex relationship between the physical and intangible elements of human existence. Peter Walsh’s phrase, “The death of the soul” (Woolf, 58), constitutes one such example: by linguistically conflating the physicality of “death” with the incorporeal connotations of a “soul,” the expression exemplifies the manner in which dueling notions of the visceral and the ethereal form a thematic cornerstone of the text as a whole. The soul in Mrs. Dalloway is indeed a living, at times almost tangible, thing: perpetually threatened by the rigid cultural and bodily restrictions of twentieth century London, its ensured vitality within the text is largely contingent upon the variety of physical actions, sexuality foremost among them, through which individuals in the novel navigate or even transgress social norms. The parallel characters of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, who share unconventional sexual histories and complex narrative relationships with their bodies, epitomize two separate ways in which the imposition of social convention upon human physicality can entail, for many, a sort of spiritual death. As repressed queer individuals, Clarissa and Septimus must negotiate their existence within a culture of immense sexual repression and compulsory heterosexuality, even as they risk destroying their own souls through a socially mandated severance of their physical selves. Using their bodies to navigate the physical and social spaces of Mrs. Dalloway in distinctly different ways, Clarissa and Septimus react to and resist social convention through acts of physicality; as the two engage in separate efforts to preserve the vitality of their souls, they establish, together, the captivating narrative lens through which Woolf conducts her nuanced examination of queer bodily resistance in the twentieth century.
In the opening pages of Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa ruminates upon “…that leaf- encumbered forest, the soul” (Woolf, 12), while later in the text, Septimus realizes that, “…trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body” (Woolf, 22). The respective language of each phrase evokes a collective image of the soul as a living and growing entity; as such, both Clarissa and Septimus’s reverence for trees can be read as an allegory for a shared intimacy and familiarity with their souls. Similarly, the sensual prose that Woolf employs in order describe natural life within these passages, rather than merely conveying a literary aesthetic, uses recurring imagery of trees to bind the notion of the soul inextricably to the novel’s central theme of human physicality. Thus, as early as the first chapter of the text, trees provide a visual allegory for the symbiotic interdependency of the body and the soul.
Given the recurring significance of physicality and social nonconformity in relation to spiritual wellbeing, it is unsurprising that sexuality—and particularly queer sexuality—in Mrs. Dalloway is often portrayed as analogous to the vitality of the soul. In one passage, Woolf evokes the innate compromising of Clarissa’s social, sexual, spiritual self, as well as the physical deterioration of her aging body, through the single image of a dying candle, writing,
“She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together…. Against such moments (with women too) there contrasted (as she laid her hat down) the bed and Baron Marbot and the candle half-burnt” (Woolf, 31).
By this point in the novel, the burning candle’s ostensible function as a signifier of passing time has already been more memorably embodied by the image of Big Ben, whose “leaden circles dissolve[ing] into the air” (Woolf, 4) represent a perfect joining of the material and the insubstantial, which Woolf employs in order to shed light upon the nature of temporality as an immaterial notion made manifest only by the physicality of its consequences. The distinguishing factor of the passage on page 31, then, is not its general depiction of time’s passage, but its specific physical connotations: the juxtaposition of the dying candle against Clarissa’s sexual experiences, and even more particularly, her experiences of “women together.” The cultural and thematic relevance of sexuality is rooted not only in its physicality, but also in its many profound interactions with social custom; in any society that attempts to repress, moralize, and control expressions of individual desire, queer or otherwise nontraditional expressions of sexuality constitute particularly powerful acts of social transgression. In Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich asserts, “there is a nascent feminist political content in the act of choosing a woman lover or life partner in the face of institutionalized heterosexuality” (Rich, 27). As a queer woman living in twentieth century London, Clarissa’s derivation of her own physical pleasure is an act of innate bodily nonconformity: her knowledge of love between women evokes not only physical gratification, but also that sociophysical bodily resistance upon which the life of her soul is contingent. When Clarissa cultivates such nonconformity through her brief erotic encounter with Sally Seton, she experiences the apotheosis of her soul’s vitality: their kiss is later recalled as “the most exquisite moment of her whole life” (Woolf, 35).
This ecstatic joining of visceral pleasure and the vitality of the soul, communicated through Clarissa and Sally’s mutual acts of social and sexual transgression, juxtaposes what Peter later perceives as the “death” of Clarissa’s soul—an instance wherein Clarissa demonstrates more conservatism and sexual inhibition than at any other moment in the text. In her callous and moralistic indictment of a woman whose child was born out of wedlock, Clarissa appears to Peter as, “…timid; hard; something arrogant; unimaginative; prudish” (Woolf, 59). Sexual repression and compulsory heterosexuality were definitive characteristics of British society of the early twentieth century, and Peter identifies that Clarissa, by echoing and propagating these social norms, has allowed her own soul to move towards dying. Although it is not uncommon for Peter to make inaccurate and misinformed judgments in his own inner monologues, his specific observations in this passage are corroborated by the stark contrast they form to Clarissa’s memories of Sally. Both Clarissa and Peter are aware, to differing extents, of the dependency of Clarissa’s soul upon the nature of her engagements with the subversive desires and pleasures of her own body. The language of the passage, like that of the dying candle, conveys a distinct sense of disharmony between sexuality, social conformity, and spiritual existence; both the vitality and the potential death of Clarissa’s soul are bound up in her physical efforts to either defy or conform to the culture she inhabits.
Septimus Warren Smith, in many ways Clarissa’s double, can also be read as queer in Mrs. Dalloway: the most evident indicator of his latent homosexuality emerges in the figure of Evans, the former officer and dear friend whose death functioned as the definitive breaking point in Septimus’s already precarious mental stability. The strength and underlying homoromanticism of the relationship between Septimus and Evans is demonstrably clear in the text, and has been repeatedly identified, alongside Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as a primary cause of the madness that characterizes Septimus’s grief. As Susan Bennett Smith writes simply in her essay, Reinventing Grief Work: Virginia Woolf’s Feminist Representations of Mourning in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, “Septimus’s unacknowledged homoerotic feelings for Evans make it difficult for him to come to terms with his death” (Smith, 317). Evans, who is described by Septimus’s wife, Lucrezia, as having been “undemonstrative in the company of women,” was apparently far less reserved in the company of Septimus: the two men are depicted in the novel as “dogs playing on a hearth-rug…. They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other” (Woolf, 86). In the already homosocial environment of the army, the intimate language and deliberately physical diction of this passage allows Septimus’s relationship to Evans to be read as homoromantic, or even homoerotic. When Septimus later notes that “Love between man and woman was repulsive to Shakespeare. The business of copulation was filth to him before the end. But, Rezia said, she must have children” (Woolf, 89), the ambivalent language of the passage seems to briefly merge the identities of the playwright and the war veteran. As Septimus ruminates upon Shakespeare’s aversion to heterosexuality, he inevitably begins to recall his own sexual obligations to his wife; in doing so, Septimus seems to insinuatehis own dissatisfaction with the heteronormative social confines to which his physical existence is bound. But perhaps the most visually striking example of Septimus’s spiritual and physical intimacy with Evans occurs earlier in the text, when Septimus mistakes Peter Walsh for Evans as he emerges from the trees (Woolf, 69-70). Arboreal imagery for Septimus, as previously established, symbolizes not only the soul, but also its union with the body; because of this, Septimus’s false vision of Evans singing in the trees can be read as deeply visceral as well as a profoundly emotional. In this moment, Evans is quite literally rooted in the physical allegory for Septimus’s soul and body—a connection that is finalized in the very content of Septimus’s writings: “Evans, Evans, Evans—his messages from the dead; do not cut down trees…”(Woolf, 147-148).
The homoerotic subtext that characterizes narrative descriptions of Septimus and Evans, as well as the symbolic connection between Evans and the motif of trees, establishes the late officer as an object of intense physical and emotional desire for Septimus; it is therefore unsurprising that his death further complicates Septimus’s sexual and social identity. Septimus’s loss of the ambiguous but definitively unconventional relationship with Evans ultimately propels him into a state of utter vulnerability, and as outside institutions move closer and closer in their efforts to medicate him into absolute conformity, he fears that his soul will be destroyed by its exposure and constraint to the conventions of British society. All the while, a lingering cultural and personal fear of bodily death continues to juxtapose his dread of a dying soul; many of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway continue to express tremendous relief for the conclusion of a war that ended years ago, but Septimus and Clarissa—a former solder and a survivor of serious illness, respectively—hold worldviews particularly well-informed by their close proximity to death. Conflating notions of bodily and spiritual decay operate omnisciently beneath the surface of Mrs. Dalloway, but are never fully realized within the text until Septimus publicizes and unites them in one ultimate act of social transgression. In a final effort to preserve his spirit from the draining conventions of society, Septimus throws himself from a window; in doing so, he surrenders the life of his body for that of his soul.
The death of the body, and the death of the soul: Septimus’s physical reconciliation of these twin catastrophes allows, at last, for the convening of the novel’s two most powerful narratives. Upon hearing of the suicide of Septimus, her double, Clarissa identifies immediately the role that William Bradshaw, an embodiment and enforcer of British social conventionality, played in “forcing [Septimus’s] soul” (Woolf, 185). Compelled by the news of Septimus’s death to renegotiate the relationship between social customs and her own soul, Clarissa ultimately chooses an action of her own—she returns to the conventional and public setting of her carefully prepared party. Thus, Mrs. Dalloway concludes with a fragile and dissonant truce: the return to the social scene of the party can be read as either the death of Clarissa’s soul or its revitalization, as an act of submission or an act of survival. Unwilling to sacrifice her body for the ultimate preservation of her soul, Clarissa makes a decision that suggests some level of conventionality, but may also allow her to remain above the proverbial tides of London’s social life. Whereas at the beginning of the morning, Clarissa struggled with a feeling of being “…invisible; unseen; unknown… Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more, this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (Woolf, 11), by the time she returns to the party that evening, Peter identifies her simply as “Clarissa” (Woolf, 194). This linguistic transmutation of Clarissa Dalloway’s name from the beginning to the end of the novel implies a poignant regaining of the self: her final action in the novel, then, is a tentative negotiation of her own social presence. Necessitating compromise, Clarissa’s choice nevertheless creates the possibility of a life that is both conventional and nonconformist, and so sacrifices, in its entirety, neither the body nor the soul.
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Peele, Thomas. “Queering Mrs. Dalloway.” Literature and Homosexuality. By Michael J. Meyer. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 205-22. Google Scholar. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.
Smith, Susan Bennett. “Reinventing Grief Work: Virginia Woolf’s Feminist Representations of Mourning in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.” Twentieth Century Literature 41.4 (1995): 310-27. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925. Print.