veemignon: (ghostworld)
[personal profile] veemignon
As a student who majored in English, it's a good idea to make best friends with any number of online etymology sites (my favorite's here). In one class, I was required to find a word I liked in Paradise Lost, research the history of the word, and then write an essay on why Milton would have used that word, considering the context as well. This breeds great habits in readers (and possibly writers, I hope). When I was reading The Brothers Karamazov, I noticed that Dostoevsky used the word "despair" constantly. After 700 pages, I realized that there were many words Dostoevsky focused on. Susan Howe gave me "categories," considering that she is a collector of words. And while reading The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, I noticed a particular emphasis on the word "definition." This makes things especially eerie when the word the writer has chosen to focus on is pertinent to their history.

Virginia Woolf was a writer I had every intention to dislike. There was something about her prose that rubbed me in the wrong way when I first read Mrs. Dalloway at the tender age of twenty. I picked it up again at twenty-five, hoping to have my mind blown by all the content I had missed. My mind was not blown, but I was writing furiously, jotting down notes in the margins, looking up the etymological history of words; this is a sign of adoration on my part. I was surprised to find that I loved this book and that it spoke to me in perhaps one of the worst parts of the year. The word that Virginia Woolf focuses on is "plunge."

The word "plunge" brings about all sorts of thoughts when discussing Virginia Woolf. She was a woman who battled depression and ended her life by drowning herself. Unfortunately, I think people focus too much on Woolf's love life and suicide. What stands is that she was a brilliant writer who was plagued by a horrible disease. There were moments, though, and I've read that she was quite happy while writing Mrs. Dalloway. I think it shows. The characters eventually commit themselves to the rigorous demands of society. While this isn't a happy ending, Mrs. Dalloway understands that that's how life is and that the only cure is to go on.

The word plunge originally meant, "to heave the lead" from the Latin word plumbum. Since then, plunge has taken a life on its own. The term, "to take the plunge" often means to commit oneself and that is the point of Mrs. Dalloway. Commit yourself to society for Mrs. Dalloway, while Septimus commits himself to nature. Mrs. Dalloway ends with a party, the biggest social event, and understands that she must continue in this vein. Septimus ends with suicide, as he accepts the pull of nature; nature speaks to him differently (and I'm not talking about the theories that have been going around, I mean that literally, nature speaks to him differently).

Virginia Woolf was a modernist writer. Most modernists focused on the effect of modernization on the individual, how society killed the individual. However, Virginia Woolf seems to offer that there is no solution. Modern society kills the individual, yes, but going back to nature is accepting that there is no such thing as "the individual." By acknowledging nature, one is accepting that the human is simply a pawn of nature. Nature is considerably important in Mrs. Dalloway, as important as the youngest inexorable sister of the fates. While Septimus is moved by nature to kill himself, Clarissa Dalloway and Peter are moved by the fact that they are aging. Death is coming soon. This causes Mrs. Dalloway to look back on her life as she prepares for a party, thoughts like, "did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home . . ." The "ebb and flow" is a dance that most human beings partake in. Eventually, we have to accept that we die and that our lives have little to no importance in the full span of things. But on the other, we can live in others, what we do for them, how we inspire them, if we make them happy for at least one day. We can live longer in the realm of human memory. And that thought is consoling when we consider the brevity of life.

Mrs. Dalloway married for society, which left out her affections for Sally, who she once shared a kiss with in private (and who she still appears to be in love with) and Peter Walsh, an old fling who left for India. Peter is an older man who is trying desperately to hold onto his youth. One thing that's interesting about Mrs. Dalloway is that the story takes place in one day. The bells of the tower are ringing, constantly reminding our characters that despite their efforts, time marches on. Death is coming closer. And Peter Walsh, despite his older age, is defiant. Peter realizes that, "the sudden loudness of the final stroke tolled for death that surprised in the midst of life, Clarissa falling where she stood, in her drawing-room. No! No! he cried. She is not dead! I am not old, he cried and marched up Whitehall, as if there rolled down to him, vigorous, unending, his future."

A patriarchal society, which is where Mrs. Dalloway takes place, allows men to thrive while intelligent women like Clarissa have to marry and start a family. By showing these characters in their later years, Woolf showcases what happens to these people in this sort of society at an older age. Peter doesn't believe in his masculinity. This is why he dreams up the dream-girl, why he marries a much younger woman, and why he is constantly pulling out that knife as if to remind himself that he is, in fact, a man. When a patriarchal society dictates what a strong man is, it immediately cuts out men who aren't that, and when society dictates what women must do, it cuts out women who fall out of that small role. Clarissa Dalloway loved Sally, but she has to hide her desire in order to thrive in society. Clarissa gives up her affections for Sally when she realizes, "she wanted his good opinion so much, perhaps. She owed him words: "sentimental," "civilized"; they started up every day of her life as if he guarded her." I don't think one needs a name next to the "he", it could easily be replaced by society, a male-dominant society that worships the super-ego and represses the id. There is so much repression in Mrs. Dalloway that it hurts. Order survives over nature. "Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human skeleton. Where there is nothing, Peter Walsh said to himself; feeling hollowed out, utterly alone." Peter Walsh can never express his feelings for Clarissa because he is held back by social conventions. Clarissa Dalloway can never express her feelings for Sally because she is held back by social conventions. No one is truly happy.

There are exceptions. There are moments when happiness makes a moment; Clarissa out shopping for flowers, realizing that she is "in it", in society. Peter Walsh has a moment, chasing down a mystery woman. Peter projects the man he wants to be (a suave adventurer) on the dream woman and chases her through London, but he can never catch her, "his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well, invented this escapade with the girl; made up as one makes up the better part of life, he thought - making oneself up; making her up; creating an exquisite amusement, and something more." By being forced to hold onto a rigid persona, a rigid exterior to society, it causes them to place all their wants and desires on imaginary people. Peter cannot catch the dream girl because he hasn't accepted nature, nor will he ever. Dream women are products of the id and for Peter to catch her, he would have to have resolved his quandaries with accepting nature. For if Peter finally found his dream girl, he would have to accept life and by accepting life, he would also have to accept death. And Peter will not accept death.

Peter's also quite the delusional sort. He insists that women are more attached to the past, but that's exactly what he's doing. By being stuck in his thoughts from the past, Peter is far too attached to his past. Repression and deluding. That is the lesson from society.

Septimus has faded away from society and this is perhaps what I love most about Woolf's writing. Depression in writing is either full on crying and sadness or the vicious brutality of a suicide attempt. Having returned to the war, Septimus fades away from his wife, fades away from society and feels great happiness in understanding nature. "Look the unseen bade him, the voice which now communicated with him who was the greatest of mankind, Septimus, lately taken from life to death, the lord who had come to renew society, who lay like a coverlet, a snow blanket smitten only by the sun . . ." Septimus begins to understand that, "he was not Septimus now." Septimus falls too far out of society. There's a moment in the beginning where Clarissa wishes that she could escape her name, Mrs. Dalloway, because it's the name of her husband and it's so clinical, as if she belongs to him, that there's no room for individualism. Septimus falls the opposite way. He fades away so far into nature that he can't recognize who he is, nature is calling to him. "But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibers in his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched, he, too, made that statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern . . ."

Eventually, Septimus does commit suicide, but it's not because of nature. He seems quite content around nature, his wife is told that he needs rest. Rest will cure everything. Lucrezia is able to convince him that going away to a retreat is a good idea. It's only when a doctor, a man of society, barges in that Septimus jumps out the window. A man of order makes that final decision for Septimus. The news reaches Mrs. Dalloway who, Septimus being a man she had not known, feels sorry for youth.

Clarissa has lost her youth and the only way to reclaim it is through her daughter, who the nanny is stealing from her. It seems as if the only way to regain youth is through what we claim. Clarissa claims her daughter, Peter claims that he is NOT OLD! In the end, Clarissa realizes that there is one thing that she is good at: "And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?" Parties. Clarissa is skilled at parties. And if she can bring people together in a small form of society, then why not? As Clarissa is nearing older age, she realizes that she is dressing to please herself rather than to impress others, and that is one of the great things about aging, when one has accepted old age. Who cares about what other people will think?

Here is a brilliant book about aging, society, and nature. I'm sorry this wasn't better written, but that's what happens when you write an analysis and wait too long after you've read the book. Every time I go back to the lines I underlined, I am utterly impressed with the skill and brilliance of Woolf's writing. Apparently, Woolf had read James Joyce's Ulysses at the time, and she, being a great admirer of Greek mythology, said that Joyce wasn't subtle with the mythology and if one is going to write a book about Greek mythology, one must be subtle. I see this in Mrs. Dalloway. There's a great want here, to be a psychopomp, someone who can travel through those different layers of super-ego, ego, and id without any repercussions. And I think that's a lovely want.
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