Monday, February 4, 2008

Mrs Dalloway: A Struggle with Society

During the course of the novel, the late Victorian depiction of English society in Mrs. Dalloway has a persistent ability to frustrate the characters -- and thereby the readers -- from realizing their personal state of happiness. From Clarissa and her apparently baseless marriage, to Peter Walsh and his ongoing search for love, each of the characters are denied fulfillment by their deference to old customs. Even the character who embodies free will against the grain of social acceptability, Sally Seton, succumbs to the enormous pressures of adult life in 1920's Great Britain.
Given Woolf's personal lifestyle and its counter-cultural nature, the rejection of culture must be one of the novel's central themes. Therefore, Septimus' death, along with Woolf's original intent to end Clarissa's life at the close of the book, assume a far more symbolic meaning than meets the eye. While Septimus -- albeit in his delusional state of mind -- escapes from the oppressive force of society only through his death, Clarissa is unable to be happy because of a decision dictated by the essential importance of class and stature in high society. An inhibitor in many ways, each character feels the uncomfortable and disorienting power of society. Even Doris Kilman, frustrated to the core by her rage -- her general indignation a product of the backlash resulting from her English heritage. Other characters, so blissfully consumed by their superficial pursuits important in name alone, are depicted by Woolf as clowns proliferating the absurd values of the aging Victorian culture in 1923. Hugh Whitbread is, in effect, the embodiment of these evils; a man of immeasurable self-contentment and profound depthlessness. In this way, Hugh represents the monstrous potential of a society to produce creatures of immense superficiality. Given Septimus’ eventual and mortal decision to take his life, along with Woolf’s intent to have Clarissa die at the end of the novel, their discontentment and near-attempts to break through the world forced upon them is depicted as a valiant, yet fruitless pursuit; the only escape, then, can be death.
The futility of escaping the fate set forth upon the characters is manifested in Sally Seton’s sudden docility in the face of superficial needs; namely, “ten thousand a year.” No person manages to remain committed to a society-free life, as though it is the only route to at least a superficial state of happiness. Therefore, Woolf’s outlook on society must be interpreted as a very negative one. For Woolf seems to view society not as a nurturing force, but rather, a mind-numbing extension of stagnation, which breeds unhappiness.

1 comment:

Erin Sells said...

A few points of clarification:
-by 1923, we can no longer call the historical period 'late Victorian.' The Victorian age has been over for over twenty years by this point.
-'Society' for Woolf could not be so strictly defined as good or evil. The societal elements she chooses to attack in the novel--the elements represented by Dr. Bradshaw, namely--are very particular parts of society (the medical and mental health establishment, the forces of 'Proportion' and 'Conversion').