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virginia woolf - mourning

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Mourning in Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse


Woolf’s novels, as Beer has argued ‘brood on death’ which was her special knowledge, as it was that of her generation. Mourning, in both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, is not limited to the actual deaths in the novels, but is extended beyond the examination of the familial context to mourning for the loss of human centrality, the recognition of the absent ‘something which permeates…which breaks up.’ 

In Mrs Dalloway, the death of Septimus, often seen as her double, is the ultimate moment of recognition and connection. however, death is not restricted to this scene; throughout the novel there are continuous references to deaths and mourning, for example he death of Clarissa’s sister, or lady Bexborough’s son, who receives the telegram while opening a bazaar. Death interrupts the continuation of society, reveals the experience behind Clarissa’s conviction that it is “dangerous to live even one day” and undermines the Progress and Conversion Bradshaw celebrates in making it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views. 

Similarly in TTL the central death of Mrs Ramsay, a unifying force throughout the novel, is accompanied by the deaths of Andrew and Prue, and all are enclosed within the transition section Time Passes. Andrew’s death in particular is abruptly introduced [a shell exploded] capturing the suddenness and brevity of the fact, and within this larger timeframe, the insignificance of the human. As Beer has argued TTL can be read as a post-symbolist novel, dealing with the theme of British empiricists, rereading Leslie Stephen’s work, exploring Hume’s idea that the ‘mind is a theatre’ and Stephen’s belief that reality is a flow of sensations. the novel as awhole explores the idea that objects have no existence outside the subject, and cannot answer our need for stability. Hoping to seek or find “the answer on the beach” in TTL is an illusion, a mirror. 

In Dalloway, the idea that nothing exists outside us except a state of mind drives the longing for fusion and necessity of severance which can be seen as the central theme of the novel. In Peter’s dream for example, the risk of fusion is seen in ‘let me blow to nothingness with the rest’. The refusal to mourn or as M.C Bradbrook saw it the “backing away from the indelicacy of putting a case or making a statement”, united the Scrutiny critics in seeing Woolf’s work as close to ‘polished aestheticism’. Pushing the major events of the traditional plot to the margins however can also be seen as part of Woolf mourning for the loss of human centrality. 

In TTL the investigation of the effects of war is held together as Beer says, by being separated in the middle section. In Mrs Dalloway the war is over, and it is June, but the sense of relief Clarissa feels is at the same time paralleled by what Miller calls “repetition as raising the dead” throughout the novel: the narrative moves forward by moving backward, the past is the present, from the beginning temporality is ambiguous in ‘how fresh the air was’. 

A.D Moody has argued that Clarissa is a representation of her society that her being “tinselly” as Woolf put it was part of her aim to criticise society and show it at work, refusing to mourn, refusing emotion, a superficiality which conceals disturbance, symbolised by the intenstiy of Clarissa’s reaction to Kilman ‘that was real’. 

The sense that death, hatred and violence are real is also central to TTL, for example in the interpolated story of drowning at the end, a story which seems “right” to Mr Ramsay, a way to counter his obsession with death and obliteration signalled by his echoes of Cowper ‘we perished each alone’. Lily’s fear that her painting will be destroyed will be hanged in the attics is part of the investigation of the finality and fear of death within the novel, but the most poignant example, perhaps, is Mrs Ramsay death. 

Critics have argued over her presentation, Heilbrun contends that she is not the embodiment of the creative artist, but as life-denying and restricted as her husband, whose philosophical thinking is undermined by our recognition that the letter he can’t reach is the one which begins his name. She has often been compared to Clarissa, as a housewife. M.C Bradbrook saw them as artists in the social medium, Millet described them as the housewives Woolf glorified. They are presented in the novel as being ‘composed’ a uniting energy against the formlessness of the sea, Clarissa organises parties as a gift, Mrs Ramsay makes the effort to keep life going in a dinner party, thinking of ‘rest on the floor of the sea.’ As soon as she leaves ‘disintegration sets in’. However, as Bowlby has argued the sense Clarissa or Mrs Ramsay are composed is only in that they are made of disparate parts, both share a longing for rest, for a ‘privacy of the soul’ at odds with the life of their society and their role in it. 

Clarissa’s self creation is not celebrated but an authoritarian call, as Tambling argues ‘some call on her to be herself’ from which she withdraws in the end – like Mrs Ramsay she briefly leaves the party. Their absence is figured in both novels as something the other characters attempt to bridge: Lily in TTL feels she must finish her painting, because she needs Mrs Ramsay. As Homans has argued however, this working of memory requires Mrs Ramsay 's absence, the mother-figure leaves a space where the work can be constructed, the angelic selflessness of death. 

Woolf’s own notes on this novel suggest it can in a sense be read as a way for Woolf to remember/mourn her parents. When it is finished, like Lily’s painting she can say ‘writing TTL laid them in my mind’ as Lily recognises that she does not need Mrs Ramsay anymore. However Woolf’s uncertainty in calling TTL an elegy is a sign of the complexity of the theme of mourning in her work. While it does contain elegiac characteristics, it is also too conflicted as Abel has argued, to be contained within a single genre. Elegy is both an allaying and a repetition of mourning, it lets go in turning mourning into representation, in Lily’s painting, in TTL as a whole, in Clarissa's recognition that Septimus had ‘plunged’ holding his treasure. 

The rise and fall ‘lark and plunge’ in Mrs Dalloway are not presented as antithetical opposites, negative and positive, but as mirror images, as Miller has argued, ambiguously similarly and paralleled by the old lady’s climbing the stairs and staring straight at Clarissa, the old gentleman descending to stare at Septimus falling. Clarissa has no connection to Septimus yet the only vestige of plot in the novel, Bradshaw’s being present at her party, brings death into her effort to give and create. She takes on the role of the grieving mother thinking of the absent son, one which is as Minnow-Pinkney has said a continuous theme in the novel. 

Mrs Ramsay's world of possibility is similarly both a world of hope and fear: as Schafer has argued, if fair days as possible, so are broken arms, and she shares Clarissa's sense of the danger of life. Clarissa’s way of countering this is to ‘behave like a lady’ yet she is given a new appreciation for death in recognising ‘he had thrown it away’ and yet kept the treasure. At the end, the moment of resolving mourning, turning it to language, is unexpectedly unambiguous in both Mrs Dalloway and TTL. 

As Beer has argued there is a relinquishing of symbolism at the end, at the arrival the lighthouse which stands against the formlessness of the sea is a stark tower on a bare rock, and all Mr Ramsay says is “ah”. His action, sprinkling crumbs on the sea, relinquishes the echo of “dust to dust”, as Lily’s “it is finished” becomes it was finished, the scale of reference becomes immediate. 

Similarly in Mrs Dalloway the last words ‘there she was’ lets go of the reappearance of the past in the same party which marked Clarissa’s choice years ago. Both Mrs Dalloway and TTL deal with themes of mourning in terms of letting go, yet the idea of fusion is also presented as possibly a source of salvation, a rescue from the fear of death in the sense of the ‘beautiful caves’ which connect in Mrs Dalloway, or the depiction of the family tree in TTL, given ‘branches and roots’. 

Lady Burton’s feeling that ‘one is connected to one’s friends’, Clarissa’s feeling that death also holds a continuation can be seen as A.D Moody argued as an investigation of a society whose life is curiously like death. As Tambling points out London is a place of statues, static and refusing the unfit. Septimus could never be part of the party. As in TTL where finally the completed vision is only possible when Mrs Ramsay is removed, there is a recognition that mourning in seeking closure, lets go of death. 

Yet the sense Clarissa’s has that she and Peter will “go on” in each other, in London, in the thoughts of others, and Mrs Ramsay's saying (as Lily imagines it) “life: stand still here”, goes beyond a criticism of the society whose restriction and rejection of difference is emphasised by the war. The notion of a transitory immortality is central to what Beer sees as the elegiac in Woolf’s work: things fall apart, but being written for a time endure. 

Clarissa's exquisite moments are ironically undermined in her receiving the message which makes her feel suddenly old, shrivelled, a ghost, but the idea of ‘little daily miracles’ is in both novels recognised as brief, not epiphanies but ‘matches struck in the dark’, making life possible, ‘catching here and there a spark of light.’ 


written: 2007;
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