Thursday, 26 May 2011

Exquisite Agony & Ecstasy in Mrs. Dalloway

This novel seems wildly at work on the interplay between extreme passion or exultation and extreme anguish or terror. The two populate the lives of Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter, to be sure, if not others as well. Characters throughout the text makes exclamations about 'What joy!' or 'Horror!'

In the park, after leaving Clarissa's, Peter swings between desperation and peace, falling asleep, in the end, on a park bench. Peter reflects on his dream of Bourton with Clarissa in years past, saying, "It was an awful feeling!" (52) Two pages later, he reports: "Never, never had he suffered so infernally!" (54) Two pages later, however, "Peter Walsh laughed out" because a little girl puts a handful of pebbles down on her nurse's knee. Joy and anguish are brothers here. (Sisters?)

I am perhaps most interested (today, anyway) in Septimus who "lay very high, on the back of the world. The earth thrilled beneath him" (59). Through Septimus's perspective, we get his sense that the world seems to say: "We welcome [...] we accept; we create." This passage continues: "Beauty, the world seemed to say" (60). Is beauty, then, what is both terrible and wonderful? Is this a paradox not to be reconciled?

Septimus's meditation on beauty comes only after falling down: "I went under the sea" (which "was awful, awful!") Is it that he emerges? Is this rebirth? In the next paragraph, as he looks around at the world, "beauty sprang instantly" (60). Indeed, "Beauty was everywhere" (61). Perhaps this is a story of the many resurrections in a single day.

I think of Yeats, of course, and his poem 'Easter Rising, 1916', in which he writes of a "terrible beauty" being born. Terrible beauties have to do with war, perhaps (as his did, in Ireland). In Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus has been shattered by WWI, is profoundly damaged, and in the film 'The Hours', the husbands have come back from war, yet supposedly Septimus in the novel "could be happy when he chose" (Rezia tells us); nothing at all is officially the matter (58). Yet characters in the wake of war are swallowed whole by a profound desperation--in the case of Septimus, to do with the world's meaninglessness.

How is it, then, these characters seem--Woolf herself seems--to ask us, that beauty still exists in the midst of what is terrible? Is the world, then, both broken and whole at once, both perfect and horrible?

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