Throughout my book, I kept writing little phrases in the margins (as we all do, annotators unite!). I was contrasting these little moments that happen again and again throughout Mrs. Dalloway. In this novel, there is a friction between the mundane, the topical, the surface level, and the interior, the private, the ocean below the postcard of the beach.
I was first tipped off to this in the novel when the airplane begins writing out letters in the air. At first I waited patiently for the reveal of this heavily, HEAVILY telegraphed symbol (on page 28 the plane is on-the-nose described as a “symbol”). Yes, I thought, please tell me, what should I be looking at? But the word literally won’t materialize.
I was impressed with this for multiple reasons.
Firstly, the scene sets up a predictable outcome but finds an unusual way out. This relaxes Virginia Woolf’s audience at the same time it gives us faith in our author. From here we see that not only is Woolf in control, but also that we won’t be able to immediately predict the outcomes of the symbolic situations she orchestrates for us.
Secondly, the scene sets up the larger theme of frustrating reader expectations when it comes to interactions between characters. Again and again we find characters that the book projects as have something essential, something they very much feel the need to say but cannot (118). Richard, in reaction to Peter’s return, buys Clarissa flowers and tries to tell her he loves her but cannot. In the past, Peter and Clarissa stand at a fountain teetering on the edge of their relationship, but neither can utter the words to take their connection past the platonic (64). Perhaps most essentially, Septimus is never thoroughly questioned about what he feels he needs to say, and in the very last moment, when his doctor does wait for him to speak, he finds he cannot (98).
Finally, most interestingly, this scene actually provides us with enough clues (toffee is mentioned at least 3 separate times during the scene, and the letters T O F end the section) that the answer is fairly (though not indisputably) clear. Simply put, we pretty well know what the plane is trying to say. However, this also sets up the rest of the novel – we, as readers privy to the character’s inner thoughts, KNOW what each character wants to say – our frustration comes from the fact that they don’t say these things out loud to each other.
Septimus seems to highlight most centrally the book’s theme that being unable to express these deep interior thoughts is a suffocating predicament. To be stuck in a world with real comments on life and forced to participate in trivialities (for example, the dichotomy between and his wife asking for the time, despite the fact that she doesn’t actually care what time it is, and is only trying to draw him away from his thoughts on page 70) is maddening. On page 89, Septimus thinks,
“One cannot bring children into a world like this. One cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the breed of these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions, but only whims and vanities, eddying them now this way, now that” (Woolf).
For Septimus, the words he does not say are the words that might actually send him back to his wife and the rest of the living world. The people around him want to draw him out of himself, but neither the doctors or his wife are interested in listening to what he might say. Mrs. Dalloway, we are led to believe at the end of the novel that she may actually speak something of substance to Peter And Sally Seton. Of course, the reader is not privy to this moment – we get only hints of course, and Woolf is loathe to abandon her practice of reader frustration – but, as the book closes, readers again have a good idea of what will happen next. As with the plane, it is not the actual thing that is happening that is important. The feelings discussed will be neither novel nor new, but they are absolutely essential to the human condition.