For the Birds

There are so many interesting aspects of this novel that I still want to discuss. One that I am still not completely sure what to make of, and one we didn’t address in class, is the bird imagery in Mrs. Dalloway.

As I was reading, I noticed bird imagery and descriptions of people as birds constantly.  Two birds are mentioned on the first page alone—A lark and a rook. I figured this would be a topic that had been written about at length, but I couldn’t find much in the library databases, or even by doing a general internet search, that discussed the use of birds in the novel. Eventually I uncovered a couple of sources that discussed the bird imagery, but not in very much detail. One source, a blog post on Blogspot,  tracks the instances of bird imagery in the novel.

In trying to decipher these images, I  thought about what birds can represent. The obvious things that come to mind are the juxtaposition of freedom in flight and life in a cage, the migratory nature of birds, the use of the term “bird” to refer to a young girl, and the fluttering nature of the smaller birds. The metaphor is complex, though,  because of the variety of birds used. Clarissa is described as a jay, Septimus as a hawk, Sir William Bradshaw as a swooping bird of prey, and Lucrezia as a little hen. The most obvious distinction here is between the male and female characters. The males are powerful, large birds of prey and the women are fragile little birds. The birds, I think, represent the character’s place in society.



Illustration of a Jay from the The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSBP).

There is so much I could say, but for now I want to focus on Septimus as a hawk. The idea of danger seemed to come up in this novel a few times. One of my favorite lines in the novel is “she [Clarissa] always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (Woolf 8). I love this line because, to me, it serves as a commentary on the novel itself–which takes place over the course of just one day and becomes quite dangerous at points. The day could be seen as dangerous to Septimus since he doesn’t live through it, but Septimus can also be seen as a danger to the society he is part of. He sees things for what they really are and ignores the conventions of his society. Septimus, thus, represents a threat to that society.

Another interesting aspect of bird imagery in Mrs. Dalloway is the beak imagery. I’m not sure I want to venture down this road, but this  (on p.47 of the google book) excerpt from The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness by Thomas C. Caramagno discusses the implications of a “beak.”

My final guess as to the reason for all the bird imagery may be far-fetched, but the birds may represent the meaningless of (most) of the characters’ lives and their society.The use of the phrase “for the birds” was used during the first half of the 1900s, according to The Free Dictionary, and it was used to refer to something worthless or something that shouldn’t be taken seriously. This seems an apt description for the London society Woolf paints in the novel.