Mrs Dalloway Essay, Research Paper
While writing and revising Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf was corresponding with E.M. Forster, who was working on A Passage to India. In September of 1921, she records in her diary: “A letter from Morgan [Forster] this morning. He seems as critical of the East as of Bloomsbury, & sits dressed in a turban watching his Prince dance” (Diary 2.138). His novel came out well before she finished hers; she read it and noted, “Morgan is too restrained in his new book perhaps” (Diary 2.304). A note of the Anglo-Indian society that dominates A Passage to India resonates in Mrs. Dalloway’s background, sounded in part by returning Indian traveler, Peter Walsh, but also heard and overheard in conversations and oblique references scattered throughout the narrative. Reinforcing its literal presence in the novel, an echo of India appears in Mrs. Dalloway’s narrative rhythms. Like the intricate percussion of the Indian tabla, the fabric of Woolf’s narrative comprises a polyrhythmic texture that subtly undermines London’s booming metronome: Big Ben.The beautiful and complex narrative of Mrs. Dalloway seems to defy readers’ powers of description. David Dowling’s Mapping Streams of Consciousness exemplifies a sense one must “reconstruct” the text in order to understand it. In a section entitled “A Reading,” Dowling dissects the novel into neat structural packages so the reader can easily study its anatomy. He includes maps of London showing various characters’ movements and intersections, an hourly chronology of the day of Clarissa’s party, character sketches condensed from details scattered in the text, and, in the appendix, a kind of “miniature concordance” that provides counts for some 32 words (“India” appears 25 times).Other studies of Mrs. Dalloway are less detailed but serve as well to illustrate the difficulties of describing its narrative patterns. In “Metaphor, Metonymy, and Ideology: Language and Perception in Mrs. Dalloway,”: Teresa L. Ebert discusses binary structures–“counterpointing…visions” (Ebert 152)–in the novel’s language. Building on Nancy Topping Bazin’s Virginia Woolf and the Androgynous Vision, she explores how female and male polarities in the text are resolved in images of androgyny. Instead of metaphor and metonymy, Caroline Webb examines the “anti-allegorical” nature of the text (Webb 279). In “Life After Death: The Allegorical Progress of Mrs. Dalloway,” she argues that the narrative invites us to look for a “hidden story,” but ultimately frustrates our expectations (Webb 279). Focussing on the narrator as a specifically created presence in the work, Sharon Stockton refers to classical physics and phenomenology to show Woolf “deconstructing the conventions of authoritarian representation” (Stockton, “Turbulence in the Text: Narrative Complexity in Mrs. Dalloway” 51).The novel’s narrative has also been described specifically in terms of its metrical effects. In “`On the Floor of the Mind’: Sentence Shape and Rhythm in Mrs. Dalloway,” Elizabeth Dodd explicates the poetic qualities of Woolf’s prose. She not only points out relationships between sentence rhythm and specific characters’ thought patterns, she also shows that Woolf turned to poetry for literary inspiration while revising Mrs. Dalloway. Calling the reader’s attention to Woolf’s June 21, 1924 diary entry–the same one in which Woolf commented on Forster’s A Passage to India (above)–Dodd shows the extent to which poetry was on the writer’s mind: “I think I grow more & more poetic” (Diary 2.304).Undoubtedly, poetry does inform Woolf’s work, and Dodd’s argument to that effect is convincing. While the sentences in Mrs. Dalloway are metrical, however, “poetic” alone does not encompass the full rhythmic force of the narrative. Ebert’s term “counterpoint” and Stockton’s metaphor of “turbulence” both evoke kinds of rhythmic structures as well, but in very different contexts. Indeed, Woolf consciously draws influence across diverse media in her quest to “[throw] away the method…in use at the moment” (Woolf, “Character in Fiction” 432). Robin Gail Schulze points to Woolf’s use of tonal music to show how she breaks with literary tradition in her novels, but she concludes that “Mrs. Dalloway, by Woolf’s definition, remains a conventional novel” (Schulze 8). I suggest, however, that Mrs. Dalloway’s chronology, the poetic meter of its sentences, its turbulence and counterpoint, are all vectors in the intricate matrix of its polyrhythmic structure.Borrowed from the field of musicology, “polyrhythmic” describes a percussive structure unfamiliar to many Westerners. Because it is not based on regular repetitive patterns marked by even measures, polyrhythmic percussion may sound chaotic to the unaccustomed ear. These characteristically non-Western rhythms are somewhat analogous to several different metronomes, each generating a different pattern based on a different downbeat. The rhythms generated by these metronomes would bear mathematic relationships to each other; the downbeats will intersect in various combinations and, at long but regular intervals, all metronomes will sound their downbeats simultaneously. In Drumming at the Edge of Magic, percussionist Mickey Hart calls this sudden unity of seemingly chaotic structures “The One.”Multiple metronomes, though, only superficially capture the complexity of Indian and other non-Western percussion traditions. Indian classical music is based on rhythmic variation and elasticity of tempo almost unheard in Western music. The tabla, one of the most common Indian percussion instruments, consists of two small drums of different size, shape, material, pitch, and timbre. The drummer uses one hand for each drum and all the fingers on both hands to produce sometimes almost minimal, often rippling and intricate accompaniment to a droning sitar or reed-like human voice. Forster describes the effect of this kind of percussion in A Passage to India:Godbole…said a word to the drummer, who broke rhythm, made a thick little blur of sound, and produced a new rhythm. This was more exciting, the inner images it evoked more definite, and the singers’ expressions became fatuous and languid. They loved all men, the whole universe, and scraps of their past, tiny splinters of detail, emerged for a moment to melt into the universal warmth. (286)
Whether or not she used Forster as a conscious model, I think this distinctively polyrhythmic music provides a surprisingly descriptive analogy for Virginia Woolf’s narrative technique in Mrs. Dalloway.
The swirling, divergent, colliding, sometimes intersecting and synchronous rhythms of Mrs. Dalloway manifest themselves in the text in various ways and on numerous levels. Rhythm emerges in the novel in literal prose references to percussive sounds, in the sound of the words themselves, and in the overarching narrative structure of the work–its pace, its pauses and plunges, its movement through time, and its movement through and around characters’ minds. Like Forster’s drummer, Woolf’s prose breaks rhythm, makes thick little blurs of sound, and produces a new rhythm; it evokes inner images; and it ultimately melts scraps of the past and tiny splinters of detail into a final unified downbeat of “universal warmth.”One of the elemental components in the polyrhythmic voicing of Mrs. Dalloway is the percussive sound-scape Woolf creates in the novel’s background. As Clarissa crosses the street at the beginning of the novel, she plunges into a cacophony punctuated by the percussive tramping and jingling of people and traffic:In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June. (4)
As Clarissa continues through town to the flower shop, the din begins to shape itself into rhythm. When an enigmatically important-looking car appears, its effects ripple and vibrate and echo through the street:
The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street. …When the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional. …In a public house in a back street a Colonial insulted the House of Windsor which led to words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy, which echoed strangely across the way. …For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound. (18)
After the ripple crests to “a general shindy” and then dissipates, another important sound, which may subtly evoke Indian music, enters the scene. Above the rhythmic sounds of life drones “the strange high singing of some aeroplane” (4), “boring into the ears of all people in the mall” (18), like the drone of a sitar or chanter whom the tabla accompanies.A similar percussive “surface agitation” ripples throughout the novel in clicks, taps, flicks, and drips; we hear it in voices chattering, twigs cracking, and in pulses and thuds. Woolf gives us the cadence of Peter Walsh “speaking to himself rhythmically, in time with the flow of the sound” (48). Septimus Warren Smith experiences “thunder-claps of fear,” and remembers the sound of Rezia and her sisters making hats: “he…could hear them; they were rubbing wires among coloured beads in saucers. …Scissors were rapping on the table. …Still, scissors rapping, girls laughing” (87). The effect of these (and numerous other) sounds in the prose is subtle but significant. They not only add an important sensory dimension to the readers’ experience of the text, they give us percussive accents to reinforce the novel’s rhythmic pace.Complimenting these sounds in the prose are words and sentences that, if read aloud, convey a sense of rhythm and percussion. A passage that nicely illustrates both sound in the prose and the sound of the prose appears when Peter Walsh is walking to the park after leaving Clarissa’s house:A patter like the patter of leaves in a wood came from behind, and with it a rustling, regular thudding sound, which as it overtook him drummed his thoughts, strict in step, up Whitehall, without his doing. Boys in uniform, carrying guns, marched with their eyes ahead of them, marched, their arms stiff, and on their faces an expression like the letters of a legend written round the base of a statue praising duty, gratitude, fidelity, love of England. (51)
The words “patter,” “rustling,” and “thudding” are onomatopoeic, simultaneously referring to and embodying sound, while “drummed” specifically evokes the percussive patterns that pervade the passage. Alliterative pairs of words, like “rustling regular,” “strict in step,” “Whitehall without,” and “written round,” and the triplet “like the letters of a legend” sound when spoken like strokes on the skin of the drum. Similar structures can be heard throughout the novel, especially in Septimus Smith’s hallucinations:
The earth thrilled beneath him. Red flowers grew through his flesh; their stiff leaves rustled by his head. Music began clanging against the rocks up here. It is a motor horn down in the street, he muttered; but up here it cannoned from rock to rock, divided, met in shocks of sound which rose in smooth columns (that music should be visible was a discovery) and became an anthem, an anthem twined round now by a shepherd boy’s piping (That’s an old man playing a penny whistle by the public-house, he muttered) which, as the boy stood still came bubbling from his pipe. (68)
The onomatopoeia and alliteration appear here as well, but the rhythm is noticeably different. Instead of the quick, crisp pattering of the passage above, Septimus’s has a slower and less regular tempo. The repetition of the “h” sound and the greater distance between some alliterative words contrasts with the military precision of Peter Walsh’s perceptions.
Of course, these are not isolated passages in the text; they merely illustrate some ways Woolf infuses her prose with sonic elements that contribute to the novel’s overarching polyrhythmic structure. These important stylistic elements–this surface agitation–add texture to the fabric of the narrative. But the predominant rhythms in the novel follow a larger pattern. In a sense, Mrs. Dalloway’s disparate rhythmic voices follow closely the “Streams of Consciousness” David Dowling seeks to map (above). Each character in the novel has her or his own narrative rhythm. These rhythms emerge and retreat, diverge and intersect, approach chaos and then resolve. We could take the primary components of narrative rhythm to be time and space. Using Dowling’s map diagrams and chronological chart as guides (Dowling 51-57), we could follow the separate time/space rhythms of Septimus, Clarissa, Peter, Richard, and Elizabeth through the day of Clarissa’s party. Hence, we could reconstruct these elements of narrative and plot–these “splinters of detail”–in a way that would be hostile to the text. In a sense, we would insist that the tabla submit to the authority of a single metronome.Time and space are important metrical components in the text, but through elastic polyrhythmic tempos and voicings, Woolf shows they are subjective components, not rigid authoritarian constants. Like Forster’s description of the effects of ritual Indian drumming, Woolf shows us scraps of her characters’ pasts as real parts of the present moment–“this moment of June.” In A passage to India the “new rhythm” brings memories and images together to form a spiritual “completeness” in the moment:Godbole…remembered an old woman he had met in Chandrapore days. Chance brought her into his mind while it was in this heated state, he did not select her, she happened to occur among the throng of soliciting images, a tiny splinter, and he impelled her by his spiritual force to that place where completeness can be found. Completeness, not reconstruction. (286)
In Mrs. Dalloway the narrator does not merely describe these moments of completeness; she creates them for us. The narrative rhythm melts past and present together for Clarissa in the first paragraphs of the novel. As Clarissa steps into the street in front of her house, her past is suddenly with her:What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen. … (3)
In a manner that she will sustain throughout the novel, the narrator conveys memory and present action to us simultaneously and ambiguously. “Which she could hear now” refers, ostensibly, to the squeak of the hinges at Bourton in Clarissa’s memory. Yet “now” implies the moment of her plunge into the street, suggesting either a kind of reverie–as in, “I can almost hear it now . . .”–or that the doors through which she now plunges also squeak. The later phrase, “for a girl of eighteen as she then was” is similarly disorienting. It locates the time of Clarissa’s bursting open the windows of Bourton, but it also implies that, through her memory, she has become eighteen again. The “then” contrasts with the earlier “now,” but neither refers concretely to its own relative time.Where Forster tells his reader that the rhythm impelled Godbole to an experience of “completeness, not reconstruction,” Woolf’s narrator causes us to experience completeness of two times with Clarissa. Studying the passage, we may feel compelled to disentangle the threads of time in order to reconstruct chronological plot. Dowling reprints diagrams other readers have used to chart chronology in the novel–one builds pyramids labeled with algebraic letters and numbers to signify time frames and characters, another draws zig-zags connecting characters to each other (Dowling 71). But Dowling is forced to conclude, “despite the patterning in the novel, then, it remains essentially disorganized” (Dowling 73). If we try to hear the narrative with a Western ear, to mark off the measures and count out the beats, the novel will confound us. Whatever tools we use, our attempts to reconstruct will negate the sense of completeness the narrator’s rhythm impels us to.Clarissa’s plunge into the street and into the air of Bourton does, however, show a specific consciousness of the simultaneous time frames: the air at Bourton was “stiller than this, of course.” Rather than comparing the past to the present, Clarissa, through the narrator, compares the air at Bourton to “this.” Past and present are still contained simultaneously in the text, but their rhythms diverge briefly. As the passage continues into memory, we retain with Clarissa a vague consciousness of the present moment:…looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”–was that it? –“I prefer men to cauliflowers”–was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace–Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July. …(3-4)
Within the memory narrative, Clarissa’s present emerges in the repeated “was that it?” and the past becomes muted, indefinite, speculative: “he must have said it. …” The narrative recenters on the present as Clarrisa thinks of Peter, but it mirrors the past’s ambiguity: “one of these days, June or July.” As Dowling writes, “the text oscillates rhythmically between memories and this day in June” (73). Past and present compliment and complicate each other. The narrator gives us a thick little blur of sound and then resolves into a new rhythm.
Of course, the rhythm of Clarissa’s plunge is not conveyed by memory and moment alone. The meter of the prose transmits what Elizabeth Dodd calls “a visceral rendition of an emotional and intellectual concern” (279). Like the meter of passages explicated above, the text here contains accents, repeated patterns, alliteration and assonance. Begining with an accented down beat–“What a Lark! What a plunge!”- the passage “squeaks” with the window, “flaps” like a wave, winds with smoke off the trees, rises and falls with the rooks. In its sound and in its pace, in its plunges and its pauses, this intermingling of past and present, this little blur of sound, establishes the polyrhythmic patterns that will wash over the reader throughout the novel. For Clarissa, the rhythm of the past at Bourton becomes as relevant to this moment of June as her preparations for her party.Similar to how it “oscillates rhythmically between memories and this day in June,” the text taps through and around Septimus’s hallucinations. When Rezia returns to his side in the park after taking a needed but brief rest from him, the narrative cadence passes from her to him. As it does, it moves from “real” detail to his fantastic improvisations on reality:Why, when she sat by him, did he start, frown at her, move away, and point at her hand, take her hand, look at it terrified? Was it that she had taken off her wedding ring? “My hand has grown so thin,” she said, “I have put it in my purse,” she told him.
He dropped her hand. Their marriage was over, he thought, with agony, with relief. The rope was cut; he mounted; he was free, as it was decreed that he, Septimus, the lord of men, should be free; alone (since his wife had thrown away her wedding ring; since she had left him), he, Septimus, was alone, called forth in advance of the mass of men to hear the truth, to learn the meaning, which now at last…was to be given whole to. …“To whom?” he asked aloud. (67, second elipses in original)As she passes into Septimus’s mind, the narrator blurs the distinction between herself and him. Grammatically, “their marriage was over” is the narrator’s third person comment; however, “he thought” attributes it to him. The narrator thus blends her rhythm with the character’s, only to diverge again with “he asked aloud.” Employed throughout the novel, this structure allows the text to “oscillate rhythmically” between “real” time–the chronological trajectory from Clarissa’s plunge into the street to the final moments of her party–and what Robin Gail Schulze calls “mind-time.” Schulze writes,During segments of mind-time, Woolf sets various time streams loose at once, either in the mind of one character, who retreats into internal soliloquy, collapsing past, present and future, or in the simultaneous perspectives given by several characters recording a single moment. The result of either technique is that plot time stands still. (Schulze 8)
Through these retreats from the novel’s chronological trajectory, and through the attending metrical nuances of the language, Woolf achieves the elasticity of tempo and meter characteristic of polyrhythmic percussion.
Time is not entirely subjective and elastic in this text, however. The novel does take place within a prescribed temporal context marked ominously by the booming of Big Ben: “First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles disolved in the air.” Schulze finds this chronology “inescapable,” and bases her conclusion that Mrs. Dalloway is finally a traditional novel largely on her reading of Big Ben’s authority in it (Schulze 8). In fact, the metronomic images of clocks in the novel do represent an almost over-powering rhythmic structure that imperils the non-Western polyrhythmic narrative force. The danger is such that Woolf titled early working drafts “The Hours.” I think, however, that the narrative ultimately subverts Big Ben’s bluster to the rhythms he threatens to quash; his metronomic authority is absorbed into and subsumed by a unified downbeat at the end of the novel that promises to launch into new polyrhythmic complexities.Woolf specifically inscribes Big Ben in the novel as a malevolent force. Immediately before Peter Walsh leaves Clarissa’s house, the clock strikes the half hour: “The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour stuck out between them with extraordinary vigour.” As Peter leaves, the clock can still be heard:“Peter! Peter!” cried Clarissa, following him out on to the landing. “My party to-night! Remember my party to-night!” She cried, having to raise her voice against the roar of the open air, and overwhelmed by the traffic and the sound of all the clocks striking, her voice crying “Remember my party to-night!” sounded frail and thin and very far away as Peter Walsh shut the door. (48)
By coming “between them with extraordinary vigour” and then threatening to drown out Clarrisa’s party invitation, Big Ben imperils the kind of human connection–the intersections and combinations of rhythms–that stave off the potential chaos of life.
In contrast to Clarrissa’s perception, Peter Walsh, the returning “Anglo-Indian,” seems impressed by the clock’s rhythm:Remember my party, remember my party, said Peter Walsh as he stepped down the street, speaking to himself rhythmically, in time with the flow of the sound, the downright sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour. (The leaden circles dissolved in the air.) (48)
As he steps “in time with the flow of sound,” he becomes flushed with self-importance:
And there he was, this fortunate man, himself, reflected in Victoria Street. All India lay behind him; plains, mountains; epidemics of cholera; a district twice as big as Ireland; decisions he had come to alone–he, Peter Walsh. …For he had a turn for mechanics; had invented a plough in his district, had ordered wheel-barrows from England, but the coolies wouldn’t use them, all of which Clarissa knew nothing whatever about. (48-49)
But when his confidence suddenly flags, Big Ben’s rhythm fails him:
As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing, Peter Walsh said to himself; feeling hollowed out, utterly empty within. (49)
As it “flaps on the mast,” time is simultaneously elevated and reduced to a symbol. Like a flag, it is an abstract icon of an ideal that failed empirialists like Peter Walsh can only hollowly salute out of the skeleton of habit.
While Peter mourns his emptiness and thinks of Clarissa, a very different clock makes her voice heard: “Ah,” said St. Margaret’s, like a hostess who comes into her drawing-room on the very stroke of the hour and finds her guests there already. “I am not late” (49). Unlike the “irrevocable” voice of Big Ben, “her voice, being the voice of the hostess, is reluctant to inflict its individuality. Some grief for the past holds it back” (49). Appropriately, St. Margaret’s “ring of sound” (50), coming sometime after Big Ben’s announcement of the same hour, reminds Peter of Clarissa:It is Clarissa herself, he thought, with a deep emotion, and an extraordinarily clear, yet puzzling, recollection of her, as if this bell had come into the room years ago, where they sat at some moment of great intimacy, and had gone from one to the other and had left, like a bee laden with honey, laden with the moment. (50)
Even for Peter, this “reluctant” voice becomes part of the mingling rhythms of past and present, in contrast to the impetuos rhythm of chronology.
Like the voice of St. Margaret’s, Clarissa quietly resists Big Ben’s authoritative voice. When we first hear Big Ben, his relationship to Clarissa’s sense of time seems tenuous:One feels,…Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. (4)
Rather than impelling time forward, the passage implies, Big Ben causes it almost to stop. Further, the clock endangers Clarissa’s biological rhythm, threatens to suspend her heart. Not surprisingly, the narrator later tells us Clarissa “feared time itself…how year by year her share was sliced” (30).
As the novel progresses through the day, however, Big Ben’s threat to Clarissa seems to diminish. When he interupts her talk with Peter, he seems more like a common bully than a serious force to be reckoned with: “The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour stuck out between them with extraordinary vigour, as if a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumb-bells this way and that.” Swinging his dumb-bells, flexing his muscle, the clock is “inconsiderate,” but also somewhat silly-looking. As the clock strikes three, the sound seems irritating to Clarissa, but not dangerous: “The sound of Big Ben flooded Clarissa’s drawing-room, where she sat, ever so annoyed, at her writing-table; worried; annoyed” (117).We eventually see Clarissa subvert Big Ben’s bullying rhythm, as if his rules don’t apply to her:But here the other clock, the clock which always struck two minutes after Big Ben, came shuffling in with its lap full of odds and ends, which it dumped down as if Big Ben were all very well with his majesty laying down the law, so solemn, so just, but she must remember all sorts of little things besides–Mrs. Marsham, Ellie Henderson, glasses for ices–all sorts of little things came flooding and lapping and dancing in on the wake of that solemn stroke. (128)
Clarissa will follow her own tempo, regardless of Big Ben’s hollow authority. The rhythm of the prose here again evokes the non-Western structures that Big Ben would assimilate. The other rhythm comes “shuffling,” “flooding and lapping and dancing on the wake” of London’s insistent metronome.Where Clarissa resists linear time, Septimus Smith decontructs it. Stockton reminds us that observation and perception are subjective relative to the position of the observer. Hence, “we are irrevocably within our universe, and the authority that would have enabled us to speak of it in terms of truth or fact has been undermined” (Stockton 48). Septimus’s insanity stems, according to Sir William Bradshaw, from his “not having a sense of proportion” (96). Unfortunately for him, Septimus understands that “the observing scientist-god, outside the system and predicting/controlling with the useful tools of lawfulness and determinism, is an archaic fiction within the new narratives of chaos” (Stockton 49). Septimus will not submit to the Doctors’ authority (“What power had Bradshaw over him?” 147), he will not adhere to the fixed and eternal referentiality of language (“He was attaching meanings to words of a symbolical kind. A serious symptom” 96), nor is he bound by the “shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing” metronomes of time.Septimus sees and celebrates a relationship between time and language. Like words, time is dynamic, symbolic, and potentially expressive:“It is time,” said Rezia.
The word “time” split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time. He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. (70)The word time is not a signifier for a single fixed “truth.” It is pregnant with “riches”–with moment and memory, present, past, and future, even with Evans and with death. In order to pour its riches over Septimus, however, time must become sub-linguistic. The word has to split its husk, then new, better, “imperishable,” autonomous words can attach themselves to an immortal ode.Autocratic language and time, the “sense of proportion” Sir Bradshaw would have Septimus submit to, is explicitly imperial. The narrator rails at length against “divine proportion,” in service of whom Bradshaw “made not only himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion” (99). But the “advantages” of proportion are not limited to England:Proportion has a sister, less smiling, more formidable, a Goddess even now engaged–in the heat and sands of India, the mud and swamp of Africa, the purlieus of London, wherever in short the climate or the devil tempts men to fall from the true belief which is her own–is even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance. Conversion is her name. … (100)
England exports Proportion and Conversion to its imperial outposts through people like Peter Walsh, whose wheel-barrows and plough “the coolies wouldn’t use.” Like Big Ben’s “inconsiderate” attempts to prescribe time, the Empire tries to prescribe its industrial culture to India. Imperialists like Peter cannot hear India’s drums because they’re too busy listening to their own voices, the clank of industry, the flick of a pocket knife, the leaden circles of Big Ben.
Below the surface, though, people like Clarissa and Septimus see the frailty of authority. They hear the more organic rhythms of India as an undercurrent flooding into post-war London in spite of Bradshaw and Holmes and Big Ben. Though the novel starts at a certain moment in June, the intricate rhythms of the narrative have long been plunging and pausing, intersecting and diverging. Clarissa and Septimus each present powerful rhythms in the text, hers building to her party, his plunging to his death. In the moments preceding his suicide, Septimus’s life shapes itself into pleasant peaceful rhythms. Sewing, Rezia makes “a sound like a kettle on the hob; bubbling, murmuring” (143); her words “bubbled away drip, drip, drip, like a contented tap left running” (144); and suddenly, his life seems real: “it was so real, it was so substantial” (144). But into their “warm place, this pocket of still air” comes Holmes. Septimus can’t submit to proportion, but neither will he be allowed to live in this world without it. Dancing away his last moments, he finds his only option:hopping indeed from foot to foot. …It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia’s (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing. …But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings–what did they want?…“I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings. (149)
Septimus’s death is not final, however; his rhythm pauses but does not fully subside. Clarissa’s theory of immortality is fulfilled in the text.
It ended in a transcendental theory…that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death. (153)
When Clarissa learns of Septimus’s death, his unseen part attaches itself to her. As Stockton points out, “Clarissa and Septimus merge into one character at the end, connected not through language, but extrasensory vision” (Stockton 50). But the “extrasensory vision” is conveyed through the narrator’s language by its rhythm:
He had killed himself–but how? Always her body went through it first…her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain. … (184)
The passage is wrapped in percussive, alliterative language, and concludes with the onomatopoeic thudding of Septimus’s rhythm transferring to Clarissa. She does not feel her new rhythm, however, until the clock strikes. In the midst of Septimus’s death, Clarissa has a vision of life going on, of the old woman across the street “quite quietly, going to bed” (186). Suddenly, for her, the clock becomes another rhythm of life, and Septimus’s rhythm merges with hers:
The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. There! The old lady had put out her light. …She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow like him–the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. (186)
The striking clock is part of “all this going on.” The rhythm of life did not stop with Septimus’s death; Clarissa must go back and assemble.The narrator of Mrs. Dalloway plunges us into a complex web of rhythms at the beginning of the novel. The rhythm of Clarissa’s past mingles with that of her present and sends her into the future. The polyrhythmic structure of the novel concludes with a new downbeat that unifies Clarissa, Peter, and Sally with their memories and their present moment and promises to launch into new rhythmic complexities. The mingling of all the disparate rhythms at Clarissa’s party builds to “a little blur of sound” that announces the coming of “a new rhythm.” We feel the expectation, the “terror” and “ecstasy,” the danger of chaos before the resolution of “the one” in the narrator’s final words:What is this terror? what is this ecstasy?…What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?
It is Clarissa, he said.For there she was.
Bazin, Nancy Topping. Virginia Woolf and the Androgynous Vision. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1973.Dodd, Elizabeth. “`On the Floor of the Mind’: Sentence Shape and Rhythm in Mrs. Dalloway.” The Midwest Quarterly 36:3 (1995): 275-288.Dowling, David. Mrs. Dalloway: Mapping Streams of Consciousness. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.Ebert, Teresa. “Metaphor, Metonymy, and Ideology: Language and Perception in Mrs. Dalloway.” Language and Style 18:2(1985): 152-164.Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1924.Hart, Mickey. Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey Into the Spirit of Percussion. San Francisco: Harper, 1990.Schulze, Robin Gail. “Design in Motion: Words, Music, and the Search for Coherence in the Works of Virginia Woolf and Arnold Schoenberg.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 25:2 (1992): 5-22.Stockton, Sharon. “Turbulence in the Text: Narrative Complexity in Mrs. Dalloway.” New Orleans Review 18:1 (1991): 46-55.Webb, Caroline. “Life After Death: The Allegorical Progress of Mrs. Dalloway.” Modern Fiction Studies 40:2 (1994): 279-298.Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1925.
Ibid. The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume Two, 1920-1924. Ed. Anne Oliver Bell.
New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
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