“Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.”
Published after World War I, Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925) is a beautifully crafted and subtle work that examines the psychological toll the war has taken on Londoners. The text’s poetic prose and stream of consciousness can be daunting. However, these difficulties can definitely be overcome by a careful and intentional reading. As you read, focus on themes of trauma and recovery, Romanticism versus practicality, and the fluidity of identity.
Difficulty level: 4/5
The Elevator Synopsis:
Clarissa Dalloway, a middle aged woman married to a politician, is getting ready for a party she is hosting that night. However, her day of preparation is interrupted by the return of childhood friend Peter Walsh, who had been living in India. His sudden reappearance in her life causes Clarissa to wonder about her marriage, her life, and the woman she has become. Meanwhile, Septimus Smith, a sensitive man who fought in the war, wanders around the city with his wife. Although Lucrezia believes there is hope for her husband, who apparently has gone mad from the trauma of the war, he is less sure. Clarissa and Septimus’s lives only touch twice, but the reverberations echo beyond even death.
… spoilers ahead …
World War I wreaked havoc on the psychologies of Londoners. Although the war has already ended, the characters in Mrs. Dalloway are still trying to recuperate:
“The War was over, except for someone like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favorite killed; but it was over; thank Heaven — over.”
Clarissa and Septimus have two very different responses to the ugly realities of life. The war caused the Romantic and poetic Septimus to long for death, a desire embodied in Evans’s ghost. In the end, the world proves too much. When the doctor moves toward him, threatening institutionalization and sterilization, Septimus jumps to his death. However, Clarissa has the opposite approach. After fighting an unnamed illness, she has decided to focus on the beauty that does exist in her world. It is why she chooses to buy the flowers herself, in the beginning of the novel, and why she chooses to “fear no more the heat of the sun” (an allusion to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline). At the end of the novel, she survives– and hopes that Septimus has found his happiness.