Liminality and the Monster

“She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (8).

That quotation right up there is, to me, one of the most interesting and compelling passages that exists in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Being the musings of the eponymous lady, those few sentences above reveal a significant amount of Clarissa Dalloway’s psychological profile. She feels adrift in the sea of humanity, within arms reach of thousands of other people yet at the same time completely separate from other human beings. She feels alone in the crowd.

She finds herself, basically, within a twisted state of liminality.

If that link didn’t work for ya, “liminality” is a concept in Cultural Anthropology described as “A transitional or indeterminate state between culturally defined stages of a person’s life, spec. such a state occupied during a ritual or rite of passage, characterized by a sense of solidarity between participants.” The first part of this definition is easy to apply to Clarissa as she functions in the novel: she exists in an indeterminate state, as expressed by the quotation above, whilst she prepares for the British social ritual that is the upper-class party. I’m not exactly the feminist scholar of the group, but I do kinda live on the Internet, and when the British Library tells me that “expectations about family and domestic life as the main concern of women” being the same post-WWI as pre-WWI, I’m inclined to believe that venerable institution. In other words, “dancing and grand social parties” were still the name of the upper-class-British-woman game during the writing of Mrs. Dalloway. The Party (capitalized for emphasis) was the social ritual of the British female upper class, both the attending and the throwing thereof. As such, it really comes as no surprise that Clarissa Dalloway would be stuck in a state of liminality during the preparation of her own party.

“But wait,” says the voice in my head, “didn’t that definition of liminality up there mention something about ‘a sense of solidarity between participants?’ Mrs. Dalloway certainly doesn’t seem to be feeling any solidarity with anyone in that quote you started this off with.”

Well, voice in my head, you’d be right–Clarissa Dalloway definitely doesn’t seem to be feeling any connection to the crowd around her during her musings. That’s why I called her state of liminality “twisted.” This seems to be Clarissa’s ultimate struggle throughout the novel: she feels she no longer has anyone she feels capable of connecting with. Her husband can’t even say “I love you” when he comes home with flowers (Meghan’s analysis of this scene is awesome–read it!), her old friends (and flames) Peter and Sally are now more attached to, respectively, India/their many children, and her daughter spends most of her time with a Catholic tutor that Clarissa can’t stand. The sense of camaraderie that is supposed to assist an individual through the state of liminality thus appears to be lost to poor Clarissa Dalloway.

Then, Septimus Smith commits suicide.

I’ll get back to that moment in a bit–first, I need to talk about another concept that has a lot to do with liminality: the monster.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “monster” is derived at least in part from the latinate term “monēre,” which means “to warn.” Being either powerful, or frightening, or both, monsters act to warn members of a given culture away from certain activities or behaviors or places or ideas. Monsters in this sense (as “warnings”) have been frequently treated as threshold guardians–between life and death (e.g. Cerberus), between the mortal world and some sort of otherworld (Valtiel in the video game Silent Hill 3), et cetera–to the point that certain figures could be argued as be “monsters” without being spooky beasties or misshapen horrors (Uriel guards the gates to Eden, for instance). Ultimately, even a human could be argued as being a “monster,” at least in the sense that a human can guard a threshold–and, in turn, allow passage through a threshold.

We can now get back to Septimus. Even as he is unsettling to those around him, even his own wife, Septimus eventually is the one that helps Clarissa overcome her state of liminality: “She felt somehow very like him–the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away… He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun” (182). Septimus warns Clarissa of the risk of losing sight of concepts like “beauty” and “fun,” and in so doing acts as a sort of monster (a frightening thing, a dead man, mentally sick in his final days), but also a companion. It is with a dead war veteran that Clarissa is finally able to discover a sense of solidarity, passing through the threshold of liminality into a more strongly-realized personal character. What, precisely, the nature of this more strongly-realized character is is beyond the reader–the book ends quite soon afterward–but Clarissa is unquestionably revitalized after the revelation of Septimus’ death. Her time of liminality has passed.

-Eliot Sherman

 

Work Cited

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt Inc., 2005. Print.

 

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One thought on “Liminality and the Monster

  1. Thanks for the shout out, Eliot!

    You’re use of the “monster” is super interesting, and I like that you applied it to Septimus. After reading your post, I felt inclined to browse the internet a little more about monsters. I found this website: https://www.buffalo.edu/home/feature_story/monster-culture.html (sorry, I don’t know how to hyperlink in the comments) from the University at Buffalo that discusses Monster Culture. In this article, there are two interesting quotes that I would like to point out that add a little extra to your section on Septimus as a monster.
    The first, claimed by David Schmidt, is: “the concept of ‘monster’ has been used in many historical, geographical and ideological contexts to dismiss and demonize that which is considered marginal, deviant and abject.” Though I would not say Septimus is “demonized,” I do think that his mental illness creates an “otherness.” Because of his “otherness,” Septimus seems to be dismissed by the other characters, expect for Clarissa and Rezia. After the part attendees find out about Septimus’s death, they are shocked at first, but quickly forget about it.
    The second quote, also discussed by David Schmidt, is: “In my ongoing study of the monstrous, I never want to lose sight of the fact that the most distinctive monsters in any culture are the ones that we don’t immediately recognize.” Although when Schmidt says this he is referring to bad people in our society, I think it provides an interesting perspective when applied to Septimus. This one might be a stretch, but I am going to throw it out there anyway. At first, we do not realize that Spetimus is a “monster” because he fought in the war and could be considered a hero. But, then we see how much damage the war did to him psychologically, and he becomes feared and even pitied–thus, “othered” or “marginalized.”

    Anyway, I will stop there. However, I think this is a really interesting concept that we should keep in mind for future readings in this class–I think there are some really cool readings that could happen. 🙂

    Like

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