Death as the Test for the Living
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"In the midst of life we are in death". Grave as it is, this phrase from the Book of Common Prayer serves to illustrate the main point vividly made in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway. The novel depicts one day in the life of high-society lady Clarissa Dalloway; the events take place in London, in June 1923. At the beginning of the story Clarissa takes a walk through Westminster in search of flowers for the party; she later meets her old admirer Peter Walsh at her house; she has a short talk with her husband Richard. At her party, where many distinguished guests are present, she finds out about the death of a young shell-shocked combatant of the Civil War, Warren Septimus Smith. The incident is recounted by his doctor, Sir William Bradshaw for whom this death is, as Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray would have said, “a strange lurid fragment from some Jacobean tragedy, as a wonderful scene from Webster, or Ford, or Cyril Tourneur” (Wilde, 1992, p. 83). Although Clarissa Dalloway’s first reaction to the news was vexation, a moment later she was filled with empathy for Septimus, whom she had never met: “her dress flamed; her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window…. So she saw it” (Woolf, 1996, p. 202).
Throughout the novel, the thought of death follows Septimus and Clarissa. The memories of war, n which England lost many soldiers, are still fresh in the minds of Londoners. As Clarissa strolls along the sunny streets of London, she thinks about the death’s ineluctability: “Did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her…?” (Woolf, 1996, p.11).
When Clarissa learns about Septimus’ suicide, she sees it as a life-asserting act of defiance: “She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away while they went on living” (Woolf, p.204). This desire to forget about somebody’s death in order to go on with your own life is similar to Dorian Gray’s thoughts after the death of Basil Hallward: “Innocent blood had been spilt. What could atone for that? Ah! For that there was no atonement; but though forgiveness was impossible, forgetfulness was possible still, and he was determined to forget…” (Wilde, 1992, p.146).
Descending into insanity, Septimus is aware that he needs help. However, his first doctor, Holmes, finds “nothing whatever the matter” (Woolf, 1996, p. 100) with him, an opinion completely refuted by a more reputable and more expensive psychiatrist Dr. Bradshaw, who finds his patient “very, very ill” (Woolf, 1996, p.108). Being intellectually superior, Septimus is distrustful of both doctors and their patronizing talk. Thee war veteran’s thinking mirrors that of Basil Hallward in The Picture of Dorian Gray: "The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play" (Wilde, 1992, p.7).However, Septimus knows, doctors also have the power to take you away from the people you love most. Here is what he thinks of Dr. Bradshaw: “Naked, defenceless, the exhausted, the friendless, received the impress of Sir William’s will. He swooped; he devoured. He shut people up” (Woolf, 1996, p. 113). Septimus’ perception of doctors as the repressive authorities is echoed by Clarissa Dalloway. Meeting Dr. Bradshaw at her highfalutin party, she is aware of his daunting presence: “Why did the sight of him, talking to Richard, curl her up? He looked what he was, a great doctor. A man absolutely at the head of his profession... Yet – what she felt was, one wouldn’t like Sir William to see one unhappy” (Woolf, 1996, p. 200). Her apprehension is perhaps accounted for by the fact that, like Septimus, Dr. Bradshaw’s patient, Clarissa is mentally agile and given to reverie and abstraction. However, she can always come back to reality, while Septimus can never do that.
Thus, by comparing the lives of these two characters in the novel - the buoyant Clarissa and the dispirited Septimus, Virginia Woolf asserts her point of the value of life.