Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mrs. Dalloway

After reading Woolf’s “Moder Fiction” essay, I couldn’t help noticing the relationship between her treatment of convention in writing and her characterization of Sir William Bradshaw. Bradshaw’s “divine proportion” (97) becomes the governing force that demands and compels conformity—her sister goddess is conversion, who “is even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance” (97). This proportion, or as Woolf framed it in her essay, this “series of gig lamps systematically arranged” (4), which is not life but convention, prevents a writer from “writ[ing] what he chose, … work [based] upon his own feeling” (4).

Furthermore, the descriptions of the two cement the connection even more. In conforming with convention, “life escapes” (3) resulting in “embalming the whole” (3) of the text. And the efforts specifically geared toward satisfying the conventions of realism are “but labour misplaced to the extent of obscuring and blotting out the light of conception” (3). Perhaps it is a stretch to frame this last statement in terms of childbirth, but I would assert that the terms of labor and conception are grounds enough for at least making the observation that Bradshaw similarly “forbade childbirth” (97) by his mental patients. More directly, the images of death invoked in the embalming come up explicitly as in the position of the proper hostess, Clarissa is mortified at hearing the Bradshaws talk about death at her party.

A little more abstractly, Clarissa sees Sir Bradshaw as “very distinguished,” “a great doctor,” “a man absolutely at the head of his profession, very powerful,” a man who “had been perfectly right; extremely sensible” (178); and yet she resists him, dislikes him even though she does not know exactly why. He is oppressive, even claustrophobic—“what a relief to get out to the street again!” (178). Similarly in her essay, Woolf describes Mr. Bennett as “perhaps the worst culprit of the three, inasmuch as he is by far the best workman. He can make a book so well constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can creep in.” Thus his the very skill and success of the labor acts as an insidious veil to conceal the faults.

So what? Assuming you accept my comparison, how does it apply? Well, if Sir Bradshaw stands for a figure of convention and conformation, then Septimus becomes a figure of modern fiction trying to break free but in this case ultimately unable to do so except by way of self-destruction. Bradshaw becomes the one truly mad: “this is madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of proportion” (97). In jumping from the window, Septimus tries to escape Homes and Bradshaw, whom he has conflated. “He did not want to die. Life was good” (146), but in order to escape convention, some self-mutilation becomes necessary and in the process renders the work “horribly mangled” (146) in the perspective of convention.

In addition to the internal and psychological nature of the novel, the lack of chapters may be one of Woolf’s attempts to break with convention, creating what might be confusion for readers not prepared to receive it. However, in their place the toll of the hours echo throughout the book: “shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion” (100). Thus in one sense Mrs. Dalloway represents Woolf’s argument in novel form for a break with convention in fiction, and a real tension exists between the labeled madness of Septimus and the true madness of Bradshaw’s all-encompassing proportion. Though Septimus dies, his death for Clarissa “was an attempt to communicate” (180), which according to Woolf’s essay is the sign of a writer: “any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express” (5).

“She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away” (182). But what had he thrown away? Something in which we are all invested, something requiring great daring to cast aside. Was it his life, or was it the system, the convention of living? After all, life itself was good.

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