Friday, May 14, 2010

Mrs. Dalloway at 85

[Here is the homeless op-ed I mentioned yesterday.]

Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway was published on May 14, 1925. It takes place on a single day in June, 1923, and follows the lives of two Londoners who never meet: Clarissa Dalloway, a society hostess, and Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran who commits suicide. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus are connected through shared thoughts and through plot: Septimus’ doctor arrives late to Clarissa’s party, delivering news of the young man’s death.

You might not notice it at first, but Mrs Dalloway is an anti-war novel. Woolf was a lifelong pacifist and all of her sympathies are with the veteran, Septimus. Furthermore, Woolf herself suffered from occasional but severe bouts of mental illness, and knew, too well, the cruelty and inefficacy of early-twentieth-century mental health care. One of the novel’s key insights is that war has ongoing effects, years after its conclusion, on both veterans and civilians. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa thinks “in the middle of my party, here's death,” Woolf means us to hear more than just the shallow concern of a hostess; she also means us to hear Clarissa’s empathy.

If this were the book’s only lesson—that war is bad, that its damage spreads beyond the battlefield—we might all agree and congratulate ourselves that we now do slightly better by our veterans than we did a century ago.

Mrs. Dalloway has a much harder lesson to teach us, however. In contrast to Clarissa, two young women in the book take a more sanguine attitude to war. There we can find a lesson about how civilians are complicit in encouraging a culture of war. First, Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth passes a street band and the march she hears bring her thoughts immediately to war and death. Elizabeth imagines a deathbed scene in which an attendant opens the window, lets the music in, and a dying person finds consolation in the “triumphing” march. Elizabeth’s meditation comes just pages before Septimus’s death: there, we see him struggle to open a window to leap to his death. There is no music; there is no consolation.

Elizabeth’s naivete retains some charm even as it gives us pause. By contrast, Woolf makes Septimus’ teacher complicit in his death. Miss Isabel Pole “lecturing in the Waterloo Road upon Shakespeare,” as Woolf herself had done as a young woman, encourages Septimus in his ambitions, “Was he not like Keats? she asked … and lit in him such a fire as burns only once in a lifetime.” Here, Woolf depicts something much more dangerous than a crush, for in encouraging Septimus to admire Keats and read Antony and Cleopatra, she is encouraging him towards martyrdom.

When Virginia Stephen taught at a working men’s college, she, too, had an enthusiastic young student to whom she taught Keats. But a 1907 letter describing the scene, is all jest and avoidance: “I can tell you the first sentence of my lecture: ‘The poet Keats died when he was 25: and he wrote all his works before that.’ Indeed—how very interesting, Miss Stephen.” Mocking her inane remark—and her students’ bland acceptance of it—the young Virginia refuses an authoritative voice.

Where Woolf eschewed authority, her character seeks it, down to her very name: Isabel, so queenly, and Pole, so erect. And Miss Pole’s teaching has the desired effect: it creates of Septimus a young patriot, “one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” The fire that she has lit in him conflates poetry and a crush on a teacher with England itself. When Septimus returns from the war, traumatized and unable to feel, literature has turned to poison, and all he can think is “How Shakespeare loathed humanity.”

Mrs. Dalloway shows that music and literature can as easily be brought into the service of violence as of peace. The lessons Elizabeth and Isabel Pole draw—and teach—about music and literature feed the culture of war. However, the lesson Woolf asks us to draw, is far different: in a world at war, as animals full of violent impulses, we must refuse to be complicit in encouraging young people to martyr themselves. In 2010, as the United States continues to fight two wars and as each season brings us a new young person, inspired to do violence in the hope of martyrdom, we would do well to reread Mrs. Dalloway, and look again at what we teach and how it can work on behalf of peace.

2 comments:

Valerie said...

Beautiful.

Doris said...

Your words bring back memories of the summer of 2008 when I took your beyond-wonderful course. Thank you again.