In her essay “Tonal Cues and Uncertain Values: Affect and Ethics in Mrs. Dalloway,” Molly Hite discusses Virginia Woolf’s statement in her diary that she wanted to “give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticize the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense” (qtd. in Hite 263). I think that Woolf accomplished these goals in her novel Mrs. Dalloway, specifically in respect to the titular character Clarissa Dalloway and the suicide of Septimus.
When Septimus is introduced to the reader it is clear that he is suffering from his recent experience on the battle field. Septimus thought of the war as “that little shindy of schoolboys with gunpowder … In the War itself he had failed” (Woolf 94). His shell shock has reached the point that he and his wife are seeking out the help of Sir William Bradshaw and Dr. Holmes. The doctors agree that due to his insanity, it would be in Septimus’s best interest to move into a medical home. The war was able to return Septimus to his wife, but his insanity robbed him of the ability to stay in his home and resume his place in the social system. This becomes even more complicated when the doctors come to fetch him to the medical home and Septimus in his depression and fear frantically searches his surroundings for a tool to end his life, ultimately choosing to leap from the window.
Clarissa Dalloway represents a refined socialite throughout the novel, dutifully buying flowers and preparing for a party in her home. Dalloway is careful to invite all the right guests, including the prime minister. Yet, even as she follows the social system as it is set up for her, she finds herself at first appalled by the discussion of and then fascinated by the suicide of Septimus, a man whom she does not know. Dalloway thinks that she is “somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it … He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back” (Woolf 182). The idea that there could be beauty or fun in the suicide of a shell shocked soldier is certainly and exercise in insanity. And still, Dalloway must return herself to the standard social order and resume her responsibilities as a high class party hostess.
In the character of Septimus, we are able to experience life, death, insanity, and the breakdown of the social system quite intensely, and in Clarissa Dalloway we see the reflection of that system. I found this novel passionate and perplexing, and would like to leave this quote as a final thought: “Attentive readers may never be able to decide once and for all how to take a difficult passage – and perhaps by extension, to take a character or interpret the moral framework of the [Mrs. Dalloway] as a whole” (Hite 266).
Hite, Molly. “Tonal Cues and Uncertain Values: Affect and Ethics in Mrs. Dalloway.” Narrative, vol. 18, no. 3, 2010, pp. 249–275.
Orpen, Sir William. Portrait of Miss Sinclair, oil on canvas, private collection, Taylor Gallery, London.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Harcourt, 2005.