In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses the characters in the novel to represent the different ideologies of British society following World War I.
Clarissa is the epitome of repression and denial; she beautifies her world to hide the ugliness of death and pain underneath. At the opposite side of the spectrum, Septimus Smith is the personification of the collapse of the measure of pride and power of England after the war, exuding the pain and suffering that he is unable to keep hidden. Peter Walsh serves as a challenger to Clarissa’s aristocratic viewpoint, although he maintains a naïve attachment to prewar England. Woolf reveals the way in which British society has lost its pre-war identity, particularly its sense of imperial pride and cultural superiority, as a result of lingering and disturbing manifestations of war trauma that threaten the society’s sense of stability and purpose.
Britain’s desire for continuity coupled with an uncertainty about its reality appear early in the novel as the motorcar passes down Piccadilly. All of the people on the street witness the car driving past slowly with “inscrutable reserve,” trying to figure out who could be inside it (Woolf 16). Everyone perceives the car with the “same dark breath of veneration,” a response reserved for someone or something to be feared and respected at the same time, and even though the passenger is unknown, “there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden” (Woolf 16). Clarissa, along with the other bystanders, believes that it has to be the Queen, Prime Minister, or royalty of some sort. Septimus is the only one who looks upon the car with dread and apprehension, “as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames” (Woolf 15). The mass of people who gathered around the mysterious car believe that they are within “speaking distance of the majesty of England” and stand in awe of the British Empire and the idea of its former reality (Woolf 16). Only Septimus, upon seeing the car, expresses a great fear, an intense foreboding of the destructiveness of that reality.
The British Empire before the war was an enduring symbol of power and greatness, but after the war, the symbol of the country’s superiority is hidden behind tinted glass. This mysterious showing of imagined royalty represents the vanishing power of England’s aristocracy and loss of imperial identity after the war. When the car vanishes down the street, there is a disturbance among the people who had witnessed the event. The appearance of royalty driving through the city creates a stir among the common people and causes them to think “of the dead; of the flag; of the Empire” (Woolf 18). The intrigue surrounding the motorcar evokes a response of uprising in the crowd of people, for the ones who rebelled against the aristocracy and the ones who upheld the tenets of pre-war society.
The House of Windsor is insulted in a barroom and a fight ensues. The car and what the power represents causes a ripple of “agitation” amongst the crowd of common people and touches upon emotions that are “very profound” (Woolf 18). For a moment, the people in the street, with the exception of Septimus, collectively communicate their shared experience. The crowd responds with loyal veneration. That veneration is the people’s “programmed response” of patriotism, what society believes is the acceptable reaction to royalty and the symbol of their imperial power.
But the people seem to make no connections between the aristocracy and accountability for “feeding three million sons into the war machine” (Larson 197). Septimus appears to be the lone witness who sees this intrusion of royalty into the common streets as an omen of destruction and horror. The car, for Septimus, symbolizes an aristocracy that caused the deaths of thousands of soldiers who fought for Great Britain’s army. Woolf has the car pass through the city and out of sight again, to reveal how removed the aristocracy is from the common people’s reality.
The citizens are kept at a great distance from the Empire, and although society reveres their royalty, they also fear it. Woolf is portraying the disconnect that occurs between the two sides: the imperialistic views of the aristocracy that cause the destruction of society and the common experience of the individuals in that devastated society. At the heart of the novel and the embodiment of stoic, British reserve is Clarissa Dalloway.
Keeping in line with the unspoken societal rule of English, Clarissa is determined to deny or evade anything that would disturb her. She chooses to repress the trauma by cloaking the images of death and devastation with beauty. Although she does mention the war, her summary glosses over the devastation and loss. Clarissa’s illusion of immunity to the devastation created by the war is due to her lack of connection to anyone who died in battle. Clarissa’s only experience is through second-hand accounts through others who have been directly affected, and other than a passing sentiment, she appears to hardly acknowledge the effect of death on the survivors. Although Clarissa appears to the people around her to be emotionally shallow, she reveals her inner turmoil and suffering when she is alone. Clarissa is recovering from an illness in her heart.
She has to hide how she truly feels and be her composed self in front of others. In this way, she represents the shattered image of superiority and power of pre-war England. Although she suffers from the devastation of the war, she chooses to adopt the conventional English mode of repression to deal with it. Clarissa chooses not to confront or deal with her emotions and justifies it by claiming “that everyone was unreal in one way,” to make sense of her own denial and align herself with English society’s collective avoidance (Woolf 171).
She cannot allow the injustices committed against others to invade her thoughts, and so by tending to her roses, she makes herself immune to feeling sorrow for the suffering of the Armenians just as she does to the trauma inflicted on the people of England. Septimus Smith displays his inner turmoil, even though he knows that society expects him to repress those emotions. Septimus returns from the war a broken man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and although his wife and doctors try to integrate him back into civilian life by forcing him to conform to the ideals and expectations of society, he realizes that he is not a part of that society anymore. Just as the foundation of society had been devastated by the war, Septimus’ identity as a man within that society is destroyed. Septimus exhibits the symptoms of shell shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder, which contradicts the social expectations of the masculine role in society.
Soldiers went to war to protect and preserve England’s status as a world power, and society expected the soldier to be the same man when he returned from battle. If there is any question about the system, the soldiers are not viewed as heroes, but as dissenters. Septimus is a tragic symbol of what many men became just after the war, suffering from what was labeled “male hysteria.” Disillusioned after the war, Septimus knows that he is a changed man and cannot revert to his pre-war identity; He cannot conform to the beliefs and tenets of British society’s idea of the masculine role. The fractured state of his psyche and the horrific visions he has are a result of the trauma he has experienced in the war, but the people around him do not react to his openly strange behavior with empathy or understanding. His own wife, Rezia, cannot see beyond the masculine expectations that Septimus now fails to meet, declaring that it “was cowardly for a man to say he would kill himself,” when her husband threatens to commit suicide (Woolf 23). Septimus commits suicide, not because he wants to die, but because he feels that he has committed an “appalling crime and had been condemned to death by human nature” (Woolf 96).
His crime was his inability to conform, and society had condemned him for expressing his true self. He commits suicide, not as a desperate act of sadness, but as a willful expression of his freedom from the tyrannical oppression of societal rules. Just before his death, he accepts his fate, saying, “There remained only the window…it was their idea of tragedy, not his…” (Woolf 11 149). In an effort to avoid the trauma and destruction of the war and to resurrect all that was great about England, Septimus, and Britain’s people, only need to revert to the proper and customary way of feeling and reacting to traumatic events. Mrs.
Dalloway portrays characters, who, in some way, exhibit post-war trauma in the aftermath of World War I, but the main character of the novel is the war itself. Woolf uses the backdrop of this historical event to produce her own commentary on the reactions to the trauma of the Great War and personalizes the effect on society as a whole. Woolf was increasingly frustrated with society’s unawareness of the destruction created by the war and the lingering psychological trauma that persisted well beyond the signing of a peace treaty. World War I forced Great Britain to rebuild not only the devastated community but also their identity as a nation. Woolf’s commentary in Mrs. Dalloway attacks the aristocracy and its obliviousness to the destruction, the mindlessness of a nation that continued to support that archaic system, and the inhumane treatment of the many civilian and military sufferers of war-induced trauma.
Woolf uses the characters in Mrs. Dalloway to express the disillusionment and devastation to humanity as a result of the war. Through Septimus Smith, she illustrates the most extreme form of trauma, and in turn, he represents the shell shock that all citizens experienced. Both struggles with trauma caused by the war, but they choose to express it differently. Although Mrs. Dalloway takes place on one day in June, five years after the war has ended, Woolf wants to illustrate that the pain and suffering do not just disappear after the soldiers are buried.
The lasting effects of World War I are apparent in the most extreme expression of mental illness in Septimus Smith and the repressed emotional pain of Clarissa Dalloway. Woolf represents a society that collectively suffers, despite the individual’s best efforts to uphold a “perfectly upright and stoical bearing.” Clarissa denies and represses her pain, choosing instead to create beauty to mask her suffering. Septimus chooses suicide to escape the pressure of being forced to conform to the English standard of masculinity and strength. Despite Clarissa’s best attempt to remain immune to the devastation and evade death, it appears at her party.
Woolf’s depiction of the aftermath of World War I reflects a society struggling to regain its prewar vitality, but which cannot escape the trauma of death and destruction in their everyday lives.