Its contemplation of evil makes “Mrs. Dalloway” a modern classic that speaks in a universal language and has universal meaning…

HopperGasThe British writer, C.E. Montague (1867–1929) poignantly describes this debasing process in an acclaimed book that appeared in 1922, Disenchantment. To read Montague’s text regarding his own personal experiences in the war and how “handsome and boundless illusions” transformed into cynicism, dejection, disappointment returns us to Ezra Pound’s earlier famous words in his poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), describing how “The Men of 1914” had “walked eye-deep in hell / believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving / came home, home to old lies, and new infamy.” Montague astonishingly replicates Pound’s feelings about the magnitude of losses and the spirit of lostness, and underlines an equivalent tone of dismay and despair in these words: “The lost years, the broken youth, the dead friends, the women’s overshadowed lives at home, the agony and bloody sweat—all had gone to darken the stains which most of us had thought to scour out of the world that our children would live in.”[1]

Montague’s words help to gauge the temper of the modern world as it would be rendered in remarkable poems and fiction written in the English language during the early decades of the twentieth century. A novel that communicates this temper in general and the feelings of disenchantment in particular, in personal and sociological and one could even say epochal contexts, is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). This novel also tells us much about the war and the postwar years, about human feelings and relationships, and about the malaise that would afflict individual and collective life in the era between the two world wars.[2] In this novel, the reader is able to gauge the mood of the times, in terms of both the human personality and the historical situation, as these were inevitably intertwined. What we recognize above all is a broken world and broken sensibilities impelled by the annihilative effects of war on both the human consciousness and the human soul. And, too, we witness the human condition in crisis in an epochal context of debasement and deterioration.

How inner human emotions, and particularly how love and death evince the consequentiality of a murder—war, is clearly a heart-word in the literature of disenchantment that Woolf registers in her novel, in which feelings of forlornness, desperation, deprivation are prevalent, and in which, to employ a Dickens phrase, we see how “a crestfallen, disenchanted man” emerges to characterize the modern age in transition. Romanticism itself, it can be said, comes of age in a world now abruptly shorn of illusions, dreams, promises of greatness. Human destiny, it seems, is arrested as men and women now confront their own souls—and their innermost angst.

History in life and life in history are irreducible phenomena in these years of crisis. The English novelist focused on in this essay ultimately provides a tragic vision of a society and culture not only under violent physical attack but also in moral disarray and dissolution. The men and women we meet in Mrs. Dalloway are casualties of their time, physically and emotionally wounded, and badly paralyzed by the power of might that is beyond comprehension. Disillusionment is akin to a sentence of death that has no surcease and that pervades their thoughts and actions, from “sickness unto death.” Their demons of fate roam in the dissimulative shape of those invidious forms of disenchantment that T.S. Eliot, in 1914, had prophesied in his poem on J. Alfred Prufrock, who is constitutionally incapable of overcoming hopelessness and lovelessness, and whose internal monologue embodies what Russell Kirk speaks of as “the intellectual and moral struggles of our time.” This is the Prufrock (“pinned and wriggling on the wall”) who lies transfixed in a modern hell, who knows the full pain of “voices dying with a dying fall,” and who lacks “the strength to force the moment to its crisis.”

Prufrock’s agonizing dilemma helps objectify the experience of the hollow men and women in the early decades of the twentieth century destined to suffer the madness of the Great War, and also to enact the feelings of laceration and derangement in post-war society. The raging battles of the war were to extend far beyond trench warfare and to become a battleground for the minds and souls of those who were to find themselves trapped in a situation over which they lacked the capacity to exert control. The tendency to play down the larger spiritual dimension of the human spectacle and instead to choose to concentrate on human patterns of behavior, sometimes to an extreme clinical degree, is bound to be one-dimensional. Eros, for example, is counted as an exclusive expression of physis in critical assessments, for instance, of Ernest Hemingway’s “inward terrain” and “the violence of our own inner nature.”[3]

Secular tendencies and habits that ignore the spiritual nature of ourselves, even when the spiritual substance is itself indiscernible or indefinable, fail to gauge the full force and effects of interior, invisible warfare as these encompass the human psyche and condition. As a result, the total picture of the human drama that evolved during and after the Great War is never fully comprehended when spiritual essences, both seen and unseen, are barely invoked or examined. Critical imbalance tends, as a result, to characterize literary discourse as a whole because of hostility to spiritual truths within a secular milieu. Indeed, the secular and secularizing view that pervades the intellectual realm in our time—and it is a view that promotes itself zealously—is ultimately advanced by zealous ideologues who rule over the cultural scene at large. This selfsame view, widely held and imperiously espoused, simply refuses to consider the origins and spread of the pervasive disenchantment in those early decades of the twentieth century.

mrs dollowayTo correct this critical imbalance is a central task here if the disenchantment that seemed to spread like a cancer in modern society after the war is to be perceived in its full power and complexity. “Enemies of the permanent things” should not be allowed to have the last word in twentieth-century life, literature, and thought, and in effect to denude the life of the soul in direct relation to the depth and magnitude of disenchantment as a symptom and portent of the spiritual malaise that deepened and accelerated after 1914–1918. The disenchantment that novelists like a Virginia Woolf, an Ernest Hemingway, and an F. Scott Fitzgerald elicit in their fiction has an immediacy that, in the course of time, underscores the prophetic element and ramifications.

The modern age, it can even be said, begins on a note of disenchantment that great imaginative novelists and poets portray in its specificities—a process that history amply confirms in the continuity of false beliefs. In a sense, it can be said, disenchantment emblematizes the deaths of belief that now define postmodern attitudes and habits, in those advanced forms of nihilism and anarchy that bring the Enlightenment to its final dismal hours of agony. Today, great humanistic artists (and critics) are thus being steadily replaced by “talents and technicians” who infect the literary scene with their dissonant sensibility. “We have suffered a paralysis or eclipse of imagination before the nightmare of history in this age,” the American critic John W. Aldridge notes in words that have a sad and harsh relevance.[4]

Virginia Woolf reminds us dramatically how great imaginative fiction unites social history and the truths of reality in memorable, enduring ways, conjoining moral intensity and civilized sensibility. To read the text of Mrs. Dalloway is to re-experience the full violence of war inflicted on body and soul and mind; to comprehend the ravages of cruel history; and, above all, to rediscover how disenchantment swept over the human personality and the state of humanity in a time of un-alleviating tragedy. That we are, it appears, at the beginning of a new age, a new social order, underlies the prophetic truths that great imaginative literature reveals to us in pensive words and voices that do not necessarily seek to define the phenomenon of disenchantment, but instead to render the experience in prose and in poetry, and in effect to reflect, in the more subtle tones of a growing awareness, the jarring rhythm of disintegration in modern existence.

A humane literary genius is actively at work in a novelist like Woolf as a moral realist who communicates her version of “the fate of man in the modern world,” unto “the end of our time,” what the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev in the thirties spoke of as “the internal apocalypse of history.” Contemporary critics, furiously “at war with the word,” generally choose to play down or to reject out-rightly intricate connections and interconnections that render issues and concerns that are the stuff of the imagination and of that shaping spirit of modern fiction, in form, in composition, in values, identified and interpreted in this essay.[5] Readers are today prone to assuming and accepting the death of great literature as it has been dictated by postmodern literary theorists and deconstructors. The theme of disenchantment, the text chosen to illustrate it, and the moral interpretation of both theme and text in the ensuing discussion, revolve around what one young critic, Mark C. Henrie, writes in an admirable essay entitled “The Refreshment of the Humanities”: “The best defense of the humanities is the activity itself…. The way for humanists to recover their cultural authority [and patrimony] is by doing what they do best: reading and explaining and criticizing the old books.”[6]

Virginia 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.”


In the presence of Sir William Bradshaw one finds one’s self in an intimidating and menacing milieu; he is the epitome of a world in which Septimus can find no meaning and in which he becomes its helpless victim. Bradshaw, “this man being the ghostly helper, the priest of science,” is the inescapable nullity and way to death. His very presence is fraught with all the trappings of negation. On the surface his diagnosis of things is adroit; it is the product both of his power to judge absolutely and to decide human fate, and of his self-certainty in categorizing the state of Septimus’s “case.” Even in his own state of confusion, Septimus intuits the negatives that are ultimately at the core of Bradshaw’s diagnostic power. Indeed, even Sir William’s medical notes, written in pencil on pink cards, are confirmations of his remorseless “verdicts.” “‘Try to think as little about yourself as possible,’” he advises the young man—but, “Really, he was not fit to be about.” Bradshaw has full trust in his findings: “‘Trust everything to me,’” he says, knowing as he does that his authority is unchallengeable and that no dissension can be booked, such is his absolute confidence in treating a patient’s illness: “order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages.”

His professional success, which he has gained by “sheer ability” has grown by leaps and bounds, and he is honored by those who admire his reputation, and who can also afford his “very large fee.” In the meantime, when Sir William’s own wife waits for him to conclude one of his distant visits to the rich and affluent, she thinks of “the wall of gold, mounting minute by minute,” which her husband is steadily building “in dealing with nerve cases,” as he ministers to his patients far and wide. And he savors his power over life, makes his unilateral judgments and decisions, as he carefully doles out his time (“[t]o his patients he gave three-quarters of an hour”). His general attitude is gallant, condescending, and always self-satisfying in knowing the worth of his medical judgments and decisions in the eyes of his peers.

As Sir William prospered, he knew, too, that he “made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalized despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views.” He knew only too well that his paramount function was to protect the citizenry from those who would enfeeble a civic society’s resolve to press on with its material fortunes and identity; that he would be thanked and rewarded “for insisting that these prophetic Christs and Christesses [such as Septimus Warren Smith], who prophesied the end of the world, or the advent of God, should drink milk in bed, as Sir William ordered.”

Sir William does not personify a metaphysics of evil that one encounters, say, in some of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s and Joseph Conrad’s villains, who essentialize abstract and extra-worldly essences of a demonism that places them somewhere between heaven and hell.[13] His Goddess was one of “proportion, divine proportion,” whom he evokes again and again; this is the Goddess who conveys Sir William’s public persona and mystifies his accomplishments. It is, so to speak, his calling card as a physician who has profound insight and helps to undo the blunders of general practitioners like Dr. Holmes.

But as Woolf’s narrative makes unmistakably clear, there is another Goddess, “Conversion is her name,” whom he worships. “Less smiling, more formidable,” this sister Goddess, like the prince of this world, is found everywhere, and is “even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance.” It is this Goddess of Conversion, as Rezia “divines,” who not only dwells in Sir William’s heart “under some plausible disguise; some venerable name; love, duty, self-sacrifice,” but also who best defines and dominates his innermost motives: to vanquish human wills and to nourish his imperial self. The “great,” self-serving doctor, in fact, though he outwardly professes belief in the classical virtue of measure, places his full and final faith in a totalitarian temper, in that other “Goddess” whose “lust is to override opposition, to stamp indelibly in the sanctuaries of others the image of herself.”

His goal is to embrace and to advance unilaterally the diverse agencies of power so as to make his patients (and his own wife) capitulate to the sovereignty of his will. He is, as his very gestures and declarations demonstrate, the “master of his own actions,” as he “swooped; he devoured. He shut people up.” The power to control others’ fate, to make his word absolute, to silence all opposition, to dominate human life: That was his constant goal. The pursuit of power best describes his creed of faith and his raison d’être. Both Rezia and Septimus, whatever their anguish and the degree of their resentment, recognize Sir William’s power to judge and to prevail.

It is precisely his insatiable appetite for the acquisition of power and dominion that furnishes Sir William with the trappings of wealth, fame, esteem, influence, dominion. It is not so much, then, that he is a representative of evil ends as that he is also the incarnation of raw power to manipulate lives and shape destiny, and as such to judge and to overrule others and to apportion punishment to the weak, the infirm, the debile, even as he simultaneously championed proportion as a way of life. Insidiously, meretriciously, he maneuvers to attain his vision of power within his own profession as a special healer of the bodies and the minds of combatants who have somehow survived military carnages only to be continuously haunted by “the images of war.”

In word and attitude, Sir William is the archetype of a scientific elite as distinguished from other intellectual and social groupings; in this, he manifests a modern state of mind empowered by its specialized view of the modern conditions and realities of material existence. His diagnosis of and his prescription for Septimus’s rehabilitation are in the end barren of understanding the depth of the disease of disenchantment that the soldier-poet Wilfred Owen designated as the “undone years” and “the hopelessness” that the combatants experienced.

Woolf employs a very fitting concrete symbol of Sir William’s success and affluence, his grey motor car parked in front of his house on Harley Street: “low, powerful, grey with plain initials interlocked on the panel.” He often uses this motor car to travel sixty miles or more into the country to visit wealthy patients as his “work grew and grew.” To match its “sober suavity,” “grey furs, silver grey rugs were heaped in it, to keep Lady Bradshaw warm while she waited” for her husband to parcel out his “infallible” medical advice. Seated within the motor car, “she felt wedged on a calm ocean, where only spice winds blow,” thinking at this point of the narrative of their marriage, with her only child, “a boy doing well at Eton,” and how “respected, admired, envied” she was, “with scarcely anything left to wish for, though she regretted her stoutness.”

Sir William has provided his family with material satisfaction; “no longer young,” “with his grey hair,” he had been knighted and has acquired a look of distinction, “a heavy look, a weary look,” “the responsibilities and privileges of his profession [being] so onerous.” Almost predictably, following consultation with Sir William, who informs Mrs. Warren Smith that her husband must go into one “of my homes,” where he will be taught to rest, Septimus’s condition is precarious. We see him next, having returned to his lodgings, “lying on the sofa of the sitting-room,” as he has become suddenly more “excited.” “That man, his friend who was killed, Evans, had come, he said. He was singing behind the screen.” With tears now running down his cheeks, Septimus is radically incoherent: “he would cry that he was falling down, down into the flames.”

At this pivotal juncture, Dr. Holmes again appears on the scene; he is, for Septimus, “the brute with the blood-red nostrils,” as on an earlier occasion Septimus pictured him in his mind: “Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on the back of a card, human nature is on you.” Indeed, Septimus never gets over the morbid feeling that both Holmes and Bradshaw are pursuing him as agents of “human cruelty.” They were his judges who “saw nothing clear, yet ruled, yet inflicted.” The scene here has an electrical intensity and marks the moment when Rezia and Septimus are to be separated. As she prepares to pack Septimus’s things to take with him to one of Bradshaw’s “homes,” she hears voices from below and then goes downstairs, thinking perhaps that it was Dr. Holmes who had come. “Septimus could hear her talking to Holmes on the staircase. ‘My dear lady, I have come as a friend,’ Holmes was saying.” Rezia, who intuits danger to her husband in the bedroom, tries to bar his way, but “a powerfully built” Holmes puts her aside.

Septimus is in a state of frenzy, fearing as he does that Holmes is about to burst open the door and to deliver a fearsome “verdict.” Thoughts of how to bring an end to his life surge up in him:—with Mrs. Filmer’s “nice clean bread knife”? or by gas fire? or with a razor? “But it was too late now. Holmes was coming.” For Septimus there “remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury-lodging house window…. Holmes was at the door. ‘I’ll give it to you!’ he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.” Agitation, shock, “thumping and whispering,” “running up and down stairs” fill this grim scene, concluding with Dr. Holmes sedating Rezia so that she will not have to see her husband’s “horribly mangled body.” The “sweet” potion lulls Rezia into a strange, uneasy slumber, as she finally beholds the shadow of Holmes’s “body standing dark against the window. So that was Dr. Holmes.”

At Clarissa Dalloway’s party that same evening, Sir William and Lady Bradshaw, who are among the invited guests, pass along, rather perfunctorily, to Clarissa the news of Septimus’s suicide, which she now envisions in harrowing detail: “He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it.’” For Clarissa, “her party,” for which she has been meticulously preparing, is of major personal importance, to be attended by great personages, “old friends,” dignitaries, Ladies and Gentlemen, and, yes, the Prime Minister himself—“this majesty passing; this symbol of what they all stood for, English society.” His presence, obviously, incarnates not only the success of the party, but of Clarissa as the paragon hostess.

Sir William’s presence, in sharp contrast—“There were the Bradshaws, whom she disliked.”—brings in a note of terror. Although Clarissa recognizes his fame, “[a] man absolutely at the head of his profession, very powerful, rather worn,” she nonetheless would not want to fall into his clutches: “No; not that man.” At one time, in fact, she had gone to him for a consultation. “But heavens—what a relief to get out to the street again!” Her own earlier experience with Sir William now connects her to Septimus, and also confirms those same fears that the Smiths were to express in their dealings with Sir William. Clarissa cannot put her finger on what exactly she disliked in him; her husband, Richard, also shares this dislike of Bradshaw, for he himself “‘didn’t like his taste, didn’t like his smell.’”

In any event, the Bradshaws are, for Clarissa, nocturnal conduits of terrible news. “Oh! Thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.” Sir William is for her, then, a dark and threatening force, and the sight of him “curl[s] her up.” Yes, she thinks, he is an “extraordinarily able” doctor, but “yet to her obscurely evil, without sex or lust, extremely polite to women, but capable of some indescribable outrage—forcing your soul, that was it.” Sir William’s news of Septimus killing himself strikes fear in her—“her dress flamed, her body burnt.” And as she dwells on the details of Septimus’s suicide, the news of which darkens and tarnishes for her the “success” of her party and interjects the grim scene of death: “It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness.”

In Septimus, Clarissa not only sees her own mortality but also feels the fleetingness and fragility of human existence: “Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the center which, mystically, evaded them.” Indeed, though death signified for her that “one was alone,” it also signified that there “was an embrace in death.” The mood of Mrs. Dalloway is pensive and even elegiac in reflection, invariably touching on the everlasting questions—sin, guilt, evil, death, redemption.

Virginia Woolf’s concentration on evil in this novel is especially intensive as she demonstrates in her graphic portrayal of Sir William Bradshaw. Even in the last three pages of the novel it is Bradshaw who is startlingly there; it is as if Mrs. Woolf cannot ignore, or dismiss, or forget, or escape him, such is the elemental power of his presence as an “enemy”: “this distinguished-looking man and his rather common-looking wife…what could one know about people like that?” For Richard Dalloway, who is casually observing the Bradshaws, “they’re damnable humbugs.” For Virginia Woolf, however, William Bradshaw is far more than simply a humbug, a deceiver, a fraud, or a sham. He is, as E.M. Forster emphatically remarks in Abinger Harvest (1936), “uninterruptedly and embracingly evil.”[14] Clearly, Sir William Bradshaw is Woolf’s quintessential metaphor for evil.

To be sure, Mrs. Dalloway is a novel about what Virginia Woolf has termed in one of her celebrated essays, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924), “the spirit we live by, life itself.”[15] In the more immediate context of the novel’s story line, it is about “this hot June day,” “this moment in June,” with its “myriad impressions.” In a deeply metaphysical sense, however, it is a novel that transports us into the kingdom of enmity and that, simultaneously, contemplates the horror of evil: its sensations, motions, forms, enticements, consequences; its dynamic of oppressive brutality and violence and death. Its contemplation of evil makes Mrs. Dalloway a modern classic that speaks in a universal language and has universal meaning, known to and felt by humankind in all countries and climes.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 2004).


[1] New York, 230.

[2] For a thorough examination of the conflict’s impact on Woolf’s war consciousness, see Karen Levenback, Virginia Woolf and the Great War, 1st ed. (Syracuse, N.Y., 1999).

[3] See Richard B. Hovey, Hemingway: The Inward Terrain (Seattle and London, 1968).

[4] See his Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the Assembly-Line Fiction (New York, 1992); and also his The American Novel and the Way We Live Now (New York and Oxford, 1983).

[5] See R.V. Young, At War with the Word: Literary Theory and the Liberal Imagination (Wilmington, Del., 1999).

[6] Modern Age: A Quarterly Review (Spring 2003), 178.

[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.

[13] See George A. Panichas, “Chapter Three: Satanism,” The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky’s Spiritual Art (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1977), 89–112; and also his “Moral Warfare in Joseph Conrad’s Victory,Modern Age: A Quarterly Review (Summer 1999), 240–251.

[14] “The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf” (New York, 1955), 108.

[15] Collected Essays, Vol. I (New York, 1967), 319–337.

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