the imaginative conservative logo

soldiers in londonVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway portrays the acute physical and psychic effects, and the sundry ramifications of disenchantment in the post-1918 years. It shows in the most vivid and heartbreaking of ways how the experience and suffering of the battlefields of the European War wreaked havoc; how the combatants who survived the holocaust then struggled wearily to understand their civilian surroundings; how, in short, they “coped,” or failed to cope, with the realities and the demands of civic society. Even if the late War and the Armistice were now simply a memory, painful memories of the war resonated among those survivors seeking to go about the business of human existence in peacetime.

Woolf’s novel has as one of its primary reference points the life and fate of a psychologically maimed soldier who has returned from the Western Front. Years after the cessation of the war, he is seen struggling frantically to come to terms with and then to overcome his experience of war and death, and then of disenchantment and madness. His name is Septimus Warren Smith, whom we see in the final day of his life on a Wednesday in June 1923; he is drawn in direct and tangential relation to the other central and secondary figures in the novel, as well as to the chain of events transpiring on a “hot June day, with the bees going round and about and the yellow butterflies.” Indeed, his character is dominant both in the overall consciousness of the novel’s fictive world and in the personal histories of the figures who appear in the events of the novel, as these are enacted in the city of London, in the district of Westminster, in which Big Ben (and Saint Margaret’s) tolls with precision and regularity: “There! Out it booms. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”[7]

Time passes, it seems, immitigably as the human spectacle and human fate inevitably interact in the framework of routine conditions and circumstances of present history, which is, nonetheless, indelibly still launched by the memory of the Great War: “This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears.” Clearly, whatever peacetime happenings and ambitions and hopes constitute the novel’s soul, as it were, the resonances of war cannot be entirely erased, or forgotten even years later, for somehow the war revisits human consciousness and relationships in the visible forms of remembrance of things past. To be sure, five years have passed by since military operations ended, but for “the men of 1914” the Great War was, in the words of a French combatant, Henri Massis, “the home of our youth” and “would never cease to mark our work and our days.”[8]

The truth of Massis’s statement permeates the whole of Mrs. Dalloway and is personified, continuously and pitilessly, from the beginning to the end of the novel, by Septimus Warren Smith—“aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes strangers apprehensive, too.” It is precisely the overarching note of apprehensiveness that captures and conveys the basic temper of Mrs. Dalloway, and that, in the end, testifies to the disenchantment that post-war literature (and society) was to highlight, with the inextinguishable power and acuity that were to earmark the modern age in its origins and developments since 1918.

It could even be said that Septimus is a representative figure in the pantheon of those early “moderns” who survived but who also lost their souls on the fighting fronts of the Great War, and who lacked, or perhaps rejected, the fundamental capacity and self-assurance, the faith, to refurbish and regain their equilibrium in an age that announced its unique ascendancy in the post-war years. Not only is Septimus a prescient historical figure and force, but also, in Mrs. Dalloway, a powerful presence that refuses to disappear, either in suicide or in death. To be sure, Clarissa Dalloway is the substantive character and center of Woolf’s novel, but Septimus Warren Smith is its fictive coadjutor (or “double”) without whom neither the role of Clarissa nor the full significance of the novel can be completely grasped. Indeed, as one critic observes, Septimus “is more closely identified with Woolf herself than is Clarissa.”[9] In fact, Septimus unifies the novel in its parts and whole; consummates the burden of its vision; extends and rarefies its rendition; and, in sum, attenuates a “gradual drawing of everything to one centre.”

Septimus was one of the first to volunteer after the outbreak of war on August 4, 1914. “He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole who, before the war, had deeply impressed a shy, stammering, “half-educated, self-educated” Septimus, newly arrived in London from Stroud. She “lit in him such a fire as burns only once in a lifetime,” exciting deep feelings, love, and idealism, and an aspiration to make something of himself, even to be someday an important literary figure. This early phase of his life was filled with poetry and enthusiasm, and was a portent of Septimus’s future as his London employer, Mr. Brewer, believed. “Something is up” in Septimus, an enthusiastic Mr. Brewer said, as he gauged his young employee’s character and prospects. Indeed, those brilliant portents, no less than his pre-war world, would soon turn into ashes, as that “monstrous” August of 1914 seemed to announce an eventual crumbling of modern civilization.

What D.H. Lawrence has likened to a “disintegrating autumnal process”[10] now began to take hold as the “prying and insidious… fingers of the European War… smashed a plaster cast of Ceres, ploughed a hole in the geranium beds, and utterly ruined the cook’s nerves at Mr. Brewer’s establishment at Muswell Hill,” to recall here Woolf’s words in Mrs. Dalloway. Septimus Warren Smith was to epitomize a way of life that would undergo cataclysmic changes and that would never return when the maroons boomed on November 11, 1918.

To be sure, Septimus, once he returned to England, and resumed his position under Mr. Brewer, was “advanced to a post of considerable responsibility. They were proud of him; he had won crosses.” Septimus and Rezia, who trims ladies’ hats for an occupation, now rent from a kindly Mrs. Filmer, “admirable lodgings off the Tottenham Court Road.” But it was by now too late, too late for Septimus, for whom Shakespeare and “the intoxication of language… had shrivelled utterly”—and “the world itself is without meaning.” An “appalling fear” had taken possession of him, at once choking and reducing him to bitterness and denial: “The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair.” For Septimus the drama of the horrors of 1914-1918 was to be not simply a “Great Interruption,” as Henry James called it, but the unbearable experience of a “murder war”—an eternity of darkness, emptiness, desolation.[11]

In Septimus Warren Smith we view conterminously a frozen heart and a stricken soul. Since his return from the war—now married for five years to twenty-four year old Rezia, from Milan—his life has been increasingly drab and unfulfilling, struggling as always to make sense of things, but without real success, except for some sporadic moments of clarity and self-understanding. “For he was gone, she thought—gone, as he threatened, to kill himself—to throw himself under a cart.” His mind and heart remain captives of his war sufferings, which he never transcends, such are their conscious and unconscious ache and pain. His affliction is unassuaging no matter where he happens to be, or what he happens to be doing, even as his relation to others (and to his wife) is null and non-existent—content as he is, it appears, “to talk to himself, to talk to a dead man [Evans], in the seat over there.”

Rezia’s own fate, “rocked by this malignant torturer,” is heightened progressively by her husband’s undulant pattern of mental behavior. His few moments of clarity, as, for example, when he feels that “Beauty was everywhere,” are invariably followed by discordant thoughts and gestures: “He had grown stranger and stranger.” For Rezia, and for Septimus, there is no possibility of full solace, coherence, salvation. Even in the midst of a luminous moment of quietude and reasonableness, he steadily descends “into the flames”; sees “faces laughing at him, calling him horrible disgusting names,” and a Skye terrier turning into a man; and hears sparrows in Regents Park in the Broad Walk singing “in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words.”

Woolf’s description of Septimus’s condition is astonishing in its dispassionate power of insight and also of sympathy as she depicts him before and after the war, when he is sinking inexorably into an abyss of nothingness and desolateness. The fact is that Septimus never escapes from no-man’s-land, that his only future is the death that, as the soldier-poet Sir Herbert Read has observed, he even now shares intimately with all those before him who had fought and died in the trenches.[12] Septimus, to be sure, was a brave warrior, but he had expended all his bravery in the war, as well as his love for his fellows. There was nothing left for him now: All his human concerns and literary ambitions were to count for him nothing in postwar English society, and he could not connect with other human beings or with the postwar world: “His body was macerated until only the nerve fibres were left. It was spread like a veil upon a rock.” The spectre of his commanding officer, Evans, (“a quiet… red-haired man”) killed at the front just before the Armistice, stubbornly and mysteriously clung to Septimus and haunted his thoughts: “A man in grey was actually walking towards them. It was Evans! But no mud was on him; no wounds; he was not changed.”

In the war, Septimus “developed manliness; he was promoted; he drew the attention, indeed the affection of his officer, Evans by name.” Clearly Septimus’s friendship with Evans is a “sacramental” one, of the ethereal kind that developed among the combatants, now necessarily free of class distinctions, confronting a common enemy and a common danger, with a common loyalty and solidarity. But the shock of warfare and its grim consequences in the end robbed Septimus of his human feelings: “For now that it was all over, truce signed, and the dead buried, he had… these sudden thunder-claps of fear. He could not feel.” His view of the world of men and women, then, is a disordered one, indelibly warped by a war that was to ordain disillusionment and cynicism that will not go away: “For the truth is… that human beings have neither kindness nor faith, nor charity…. They hunt in packs. Their packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness.”

Septimus’s shell-shocked consciousness deteriorates in his postwar setting, as “he descended another step into the pit… he dropped his head on his hands. Now he had surrendered; now other people must help him.” Dr. Holmes, a kindly, amiable, but hopelessly imperceptive and inept general practitioner, who also happens to be Mrs. Filmer’s physician, is now called on to examine Septimus: “There was nothing whatever the matter, said Dr. Holmes,” who is totally oblivious of the young man’s “degradation.” Perfunctorily, he brushes aside the “headaches, sleeplessness, fears, dreams—nerve symptoms and nothing more, he said.” Septimus’s internal condition gets worse, in the meantime, notwithstanding Holmes’s forty years’ medical experience: “Holmes himself could not touch this last relic straying on the edge of the world, this outcast.”

And once again we hear the voice from behind the screen: “Evans was speaking. The dead were with him.” Having no real confidence in Dr. Holmes, who has been treating him for six weeks, and with Septimus’s condition steadily reaching a breaking point, the “Warren Smiths walked down Harley Street,” this time to consult with an eminent specialist, Sir William Bradshaw, who has attained “the reputation (of the utmost importance in dealing with nerve cases) not merely of lightning skill, and almost infallible accuracy in diagnosis but of sympathy; tact; understanding of the human soul.”

Sir William “was certain directly he saw the man; it was a case of extreme gravity…[a] complete physical and nervous breakdown, with every symptom in an advanced stage.” For Septimus, as indeed for a neurasthenic like Virginia Woolf herself, Sir William’s is the voice of thanatos, the voice of the world, unrelenting in its authority, cold and matter-of-fact, dogmatic in conviction, the last word in disenchantment. “Shortly and kindly Sir William explained to her [Rezia] the state of the case”: Septimus had threatened to kill himself. “There was no alternative. It was a question of law.”

In short, Septimus Warren Smith, “the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death,” was condemned by Sir William to “go into a home” in the country, where he would learn to rest. “Really he was not fit to be about.” (“The fellow made a distasteful impression” on the famous specialist, in whom there was “a grudge, deeply buried, against cultivated people who came into his room and intimated that doctors…are not educated men.”) Septimus’s own instinctive perception of what Sir William represents is sharply expressed in his interior thoughts on the hard-nosed “arrangements” for his rehabilitation (for the sake of “divine proportion”): “Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the desert. The rack and the thumbscrew are applied. Human nature is remorseless.”

Sir William’s meeting with Septimus and Rezia, which comes at the novel’s mid-point, contains Woolf’s conception of alienation in its modern constituents, as these are transcribed in an urban metropolis that, from the standpoint of human warmth and compassion, is cold and unfeeling, even indifferent to the possibility of suicide and death. If anything, the city of London in Mrs. Dalloway has the underlying look and feel of a necropolis and magnifies the sense of alienation that oppresses men and women who live in its houses, walk on its streets, meet and interact with others, hear sounds and words, and see things that are transient in context and meaning. The Smiths/Bradshaw meeting manifests the mood and temper of alienated men and women—skeptical, estranged, or withdrawn, or withered in feeling or affection. This dramatic meeting, which has incalculable effects, as evidenced in its immediate scenes and dialogue, leads Rezia to conveying her most frightening inner feelings of disenchantment and, ultimately, of disconnection: “Sir William was not a nice man.” “He had failed them!” “They had been deserted.”

This is the second essay in a three-part series; the first may be found here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 2004).


[7] All quotations from Mrs. Dalloway (1925) found in the text of this essay are from the Harvest Book edition of the novel published by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. (New York, 1953).

[8] “The War We Fought,” Promise of Greatness: The War of 1914–1918, edited by George A. Panichas, with a foreword by Sir Herbert Read (New York and London, 1968), 284.

[9] Peter Filkins, “Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway,British Writers Classics, Vol. II (New York, 2004), 198.

[10] Quoted in George A. Panichas, “D. H. Lawrence’s War Letters,” The Courage of Judgment: Essays in Criticism, Culture, and Society, with a foreword by Austin Warren, 1st ed. (Knoxville, Tenn., 1982), 220–231. The essay that immediately follows, “In Retreat,” 232–237, should also be of interest.

[11] For Henry James’s reactions to World War I, see George A. Panichas, “Henry James and Paradigms of Character,” The Critic as Conservator: Essays in Literature, Society, and Culture (Washington, D.C., 1992), 57–76.

[12] Sir Herbert Read, Foreword, Promise of Greatness, v-vii.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Leave a Reply