Thursday, July 10, 2008

Military women.

Two things: every time I read Mrs. Dalloway, I am struck by something new; today, it is that every woman in the book is, at one point or another, associated with the military. This included Elizabeth Dalloway, who passes a Salvation Army-type band during her walk toward St. Paul’s from Chancery Lane:
“The noise was tremendous; and suddenly there were trumpets (the unemployed) blaring, rattling about in the uproar; military music; as if people were marching; yet had they been dying—had some woman breathed her last, and whoever was watching, opening the window of the room where she had just brought off that act of supreme dignity, look down on Fleet Street, that uproar, that military music would have come triumphing up to him, consolatory, indifferent” (208).

What struck me first here was the pause over music in this passage and how quickly the trumpets become martial. It is likely that these unemployed musicians were wearing some kind of uniform, but Woolf’s having Elizabeth notice the military music and connect it with marching soldier continues a pattern of associating all the female characters, literally or, more often, metaphorically, with soldiers: Clarissa and Miss Kilman carry umbrellas like weapons, Lady Bruton should have been a general, and now, young Elizabeth hears military music.
Elizabeth’s meditation comes just pages before the final scenes with Septimus. (His suicide is on page 224, less than twenty pages later, and we are with him continuously from 210 until his death.) While Elizabeth thinks that a man witnessing a dying woman would look out the window be consoled by the tremendous noise of the brass band playing marches, it is a solider who opens the window, pages later, and, unconsoled, throws himself down to his death. Those watching do not witness an act of supreme dignity and are not consoled. Instead, Dr. Holmes offers Rezia an extra dose of tranquilizer and feels anger and frustration at his failure to save the man whom he thinks a coward.
I’m not quite sure what this tells us about Elizabeth. Is she callous? Wise? Silly about what war means? Does it portend her eventual settling into a life like her mother’s? There is something going on here, too, about courage and cowardice. The soldier who had served bravely is also the only person in the novel who is directly called a coward where women in the book are consistently associated with very traditional patriarchal emblems of courage.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant observations, Anne. Your thoughts emphasize Woolf's subtle yet consistent references to war in her novels.

They also prefigure Woolf's premise in Three Guineas that war in the public sphere is supported by the patriarchy of the private home. In MD, each of these female characters unwittingly reinforces the military mindset.

By describing her female characters this way, Woolf dispels the myth of the separation between homefront and battlefront, as well as the illusion of civilian immunity.