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Death Comes to the Party: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

01 June 2021

Charlotte Hallahan, University of East Anglia

In 1925, Woolf heard news of her friend Jacques Raverat’s death at a party. Afterwards, in her diary, she wrote: ‘I do not any longer feel inclined to doff the cap to death. I like to go out of the room talking, with an unfinished casual sentence on my lips’.[1] In Mrs Dalloway (1925), the solemn news of Septimus Warren Smith’s death interrupts Clarissa Dalloway’s party. But Clarissa sees Septimus’ death as a license to live, to return to her party (to, perhaps, ‘go out of the room talking’). In Woolf’s party, we see the curious meeting of life and death, where death holds the ability to give life order and meaning.

Woolf’s narrative culminates with a party, a state of energy and vitality. Clarissa, however, is unsatisfied. The party is unfulfilling; it is ‘too much of an effort. She was not enjoying it’.[2] Even her most prominent guest, the prime minister, seems ordinary and dull. But then Clarissa hears of Septimus’ death. She moves to a little room, away from the other revellers, and contemplates the suicide of this young man that she does not know. There, she realises the beauty of Septimus’ sacrifice and sees his death as an ‘embrace’, an act of communication:

A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre, which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone.

(133-4)

Clarissa realises that she ‘felt somehow very like him — the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it, ‘thrown it away while they went on living’ (135). With this revelation, Clarissa realises ‘she had never been so happy’, that ‘she must assemble’, and so she returns to the party, the realm of the living, with a new vitality (134–35). In this moment, Woolf connects life and death so that Septimus’ suicide is Clarissa’s resurrection, her rebirth. Septimus’ death provides Clarissa with the opportunity to defy or overcome her hollow life as the wife of a government minister. She realises that life is ‘extraordinary’, that it has a meaning which has thus far been ‘obscured’ in empty chatter (134–35). Later, Woolf wrote that she intended the characters of Clarissa and Septimus to be ‘entirely dependent upon each other’.[3] Indeed, in this passage, Clarissa gives Septimus’ death meaning, while Septimus gives Clarissa’s life purpose.

Septimus’ death has a reconciliatory function in that it defeats Clarissa’s feelings of social isolation. Earlier in the novel, as she walks through London, Clarissa has the ‘oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown’ and believes that her purpose in life has come to an end now that her children are grown (8). But with Septimus’ death, Clarissa feels suddenly connected to the people around her. As she contemplates the suicide, she looks out the window and is fascinated by an old woman across the street preparing to go to bed. Turning to leave, she feels a new urge to find her old friends Sally and Peter and reinvigorate the old friendships she previously believed lost. Here, Septimus’ ‘attempt to communicate’ becomes Clarissa’s own desire for social connection.

On a narratological level, we might also say that the ‘death’ and ‘life’ of the plot meet at Clarissa’s party. In Reading for the Plot (1987), Peter Brooks argues that all actions in a narrative are geared toward an anticipated end, its ‘death’. The ‘narrative desire’ of the text itself is to reach this end: it is the desire for the knowledge that comes after the plot is fully revealed. Brooks’ theory of narrative replicates the Freudian death drive—the human desire for death in order to resolve or dissipate the tensions of life. He argues that ‘all narrative may be in essence obituary’ in that ‘the retrospective knowledge that it seeks, the knowledge that comes after, stands on the far side of the end, in human terms on the far side of death’.[4] The desire for death is thus a desire for order, where ‘present moments—in literature and, by extension, in life’ are endowed with meaning only when ‘we read them in anticipation of the structuring power of those endings that will retrospectively give them the order and significance of plot’.[5] In Mrs Dalloway, it is the party (the final event of the novel) that promises such order.

Unfolding in a succession of small, everyday events, Mrs Dalloway relates one day in the life of Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway (over that day, Septimus visits a doctor and Clarissa plans a party). But Clarissa and Septimus’ plots do not end at the same moment. Rather, Clarissa knows Septimus only through his death, when his plot has already met its end. The end of Septimus’ sub-plot also operates as what Brooks calls the narrative ‘détour’, which wards off ‘the danger of reaching the end too quickly, of achieving the improper death’.[6] Septimus’ suicide, which functions as the formal ‘death’ of his sub-plot, ensures Clarissa’s can continue. In other words, Septimus perishes so Clarissa does not have to. Ironically, it is Septimus’ death that provides the party with importance. If we read Mrs Dalloway with Brooks in mind, we might say that the novel’s narrative desire is to reach the party, where the two strands of the plot finally meet and endow each other with meaning. Just as a party is an event for social connection, Woolf’s party brings together these two isolated plots to find a narrative resolution—Clarissa’s willingness to, once again, embrace life.


Sources:

[1] Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie, 5 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1977–84), III, p. 7.

[2] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (Ware: Wordsworth, 2003), p. 124. All subsequent references are to this edition and given in parenthesis.

[3] Virginia Woolf, A Change of Perspective: Collected Letters III, 1923–28, ed. by Nigel Nicholson (London: Hogarth Press, 1994), p. 188.

[4] Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Vintage, 1984), p. 94.

[5] Brooks, p. 95.

[6] Brooks, pp. 103–04.

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