Writing from my room in Bloomsbury
I hadn’t realized how strong the presence of the dead is in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway until I was asked to write a blog post about it specifically. Looking back through my notes in the margins, I’m shocked I missed it; countless quotes about death and the interaction between the living and the dead pop out throughout the text.
Death is quite prominent in of the most famous scenes in the novel, where everyone on the street is fascinated with the car passing by. People are struck by the thought of being in such close proximity of royalty:
Ordinary people who might now, for the first and last time, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting through ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust. (16)
Why with all the excitement of royalty and a celebrity around would thoughts of inevitable death and wasting away come up? This section defines Englishness in two distinct ways. The class divide between royalty and the others is prevalent here. Just the thought, the possibility of being near royalty, yet still separated by groups of people and a car from the possible royal, sets everyone’s heart aflame. It feels like an accomplishment to the people in the street, for they must’ve chosen the right time to go shopping to have been given this incredible opportunity (that again, no one will ever know if it actually was a person of importance or not). Expanding on this, there is a definite tie between death and nationalism.
While being instilled with this sense of importance and pride of being so close to the English royalty, the crowd is contemplating their own individual deaths. Historians will remember the royal sitting in the car that passes them by, but will not remember them. They will always be insignificant. Part of Englishness is the powerful and impressionable monarchy, and the commoners (the people in the street) will all be forgotten. The next pages reads that “strangers looked at each other, and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire” (17). The nationalism these people feel is tied directly to death. Englishness cannot be without royalty and death. Clarissa Dalloway has an interesting thought while walking around London, which was “Did it matter then, she asked herself…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?” (9). Based on her reaction and everyone else’s reaction in the street, it seems that the proximity to the everlasting presence in history that the English royalty will have is enough to comfort the commoners in their inevitable meaningless death. As long as something with great importance lasted, their insignificant deaths were accepted. Nationalism and pride in their Englishness have given them this idea that death is necessary and they must accept it.
Nationalism and death play another role in the character of Septimus Smith, for it seems necessary that there be dead in order for there to be nationalism. By far one of my favorite characters in Dalloway, his role in Dalloway is tragic, and his path to suicide another place where I felt the presence of the dead in the novel. His view on the world is warped due to his experience fighting for the country; his pride in England led him to signing up to fight, but sadly it leads to his suicide. Though he suffered immensely to defend his country,”it was cowardly for a man to say he would kill himself,” even after doing something courageous for his country (22). Septimus is haunted by the dead, both with the idea of his own death and the ghost of Evans. In the middle of the park, Septimus is convinced that he sees Evans, and exclaims “‘For God’s sake don’t come!’… For he could not look upon the dead,” and this passage ends with Septimus “smiling at the dead man in the grey suit” (68-69). His trauma has caused him to see the dead in his daily life, yet his individual condition must be silenced for the good of the England. Septimus has served what is defined as the only appropriate way to have pride for England: he put his life on the line in battle, but is not allowed to battle his own depression and suicidal thoughts publicly. Again, the life of the commoner, the individual, is irrelevant as long as Englishness is preserved. London is a “city of tombs” because in order for London and Englishness as a whole to continue to function, many have to die, whether it’s in war, by silencing their mental health issues, or just quietly for the sake of those in power.