Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Power of Suicide in Mrs. Dalloway

Suicide, though long considered a cultural taboo (and in many cases, mortal sin) by Western culture, has a literary tradition espousing it as the ultimate expression of power. In moments of desperation, characters may commit suicide in order to retain what tiny measure of control they retain over their own lives. It is a theme that seems particularly prevalent in feminist literature, and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway provides an excellent example.

My own first encounter with this theme was Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Published in 1899, it is a narrative detailing the metaphysical awakening of a repressed New Orleans socialite. As Chopin details Edna Pontellier’s journey of self-discovery, it quickly becomes evident that the male-dominated social sphere she inhabits has no tolerance for a woman who is aware of and exercises her own ability and sexuality. Rather than resign herself to the life that has been built for her, with a husband that provides for her and children that depend on her, she walks naked into the ocean, taking her own life.

Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf treads a similar ground with the character of Septimus. Rather than have his most private thoughts violated and his every action limited by the incessant attentions of psychiatrists, the mad poet Septimus leaps through a window to his death. Woolf’s main protagonist, the noble yet equally repressed Clarissa Dalloway, takes comfort at this character’s suicide later in the novel, wondering if he had "plunged holding his treasure." (Woolf, 184) This connection Clarissa makes with Septimus, a man she had never met, gives her strength and saves her from her own dark thoughts of suicide, as the gravity of his own decision allows her to reach an epiphany of control.


Erin Sells said...

Good parallel to the standard suicide of many feminist texts. Woolf changes it up here with Septimus--she shows that it's an expression of power for anyone who is being oppressed by society, not just women.

I was thinking about this after watching "Dead Poets Society" again the other day--I've never really 'bought' Neil's suicide in that movie--but it does fit the mold of the oppressed figure making an assertion of his agency. I think Septimus's suicide seems more plausible to me because of the extent of his societal 'injuries'--PTSD, mental illness, a crisis of masculinity, class discrimination (and the list goes on).

Adam Stoller said...

I agree with Professor Sells. I don't think Wolf or other feminist writers intend for suicide to become the typical literary expression of women's power. Notably, Septimus is a man and the strongest character in the novel, Killman, who is also oppressed, is a woman.

I think the main point is that one can either stand up to society and suffer its scorn or retreat to the sweat release of death.