It Goes Without Saying: The Rhetoric of Omission in Mrs Dalloway
stimulates us to supply what is not there”.
Virginia Woolf The Common Reader 138, “Jane Austen.”
“Fiction is as much what is
said as what is not said” Raymond Federman
An important creative aspect of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs
Dalloway, the difficult art of omission, has remained unnoticed. This
feature is partially responsible for making this novel notoriously problematic.
It seems that leaving out specifics or simply remaining silent on matters which
may be easily comprehended by the sophisticated reader relieves the narrator of
giving details. As Hugh Whitbread insinuates, there are such matters which even
Clarissa Dalloway “would quite understand without requiring him to specify” (MD 7). This essay demonstrates the
techniques of narration by preterition or “what people do not say but what
their behavior and attitudes say for them” as an issue concerning communication
The best critics have seemed to be unaware that narration and
dialogue are being used in ways that conceal rather than reveal; these ways
obscure rather than inform. Although Clarissa is capable of subtlety, opening
two doors at once in the very beginning, (one presently at Westminster, the
other long ago at Bourton), the current policy is to leave many other doors
unopened; “she would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or
that “ (MD 11). Like Jane Austen, “what
she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands
in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes
which are outwardly trivial” (Woolf CR
138-139). The theorist Wolfgang Iser among others is concerned with the
“unwritten” aspects of “often apparently trivial or commonplace scenes, the
words which are left unsaid … which represent a major form of game between
narrator and reader” (Hutchinson 22). Silence on unspoken essentials, “this or
that,” is a central feature which will be closely examined here.
Various subjects for scrutiny
of Mrs Dalloway have included war,
sex, madness, all perfectly justified. Relatively unimportant matters like
parties receive some attention, whereas significant omissions including the
thematic importance of life, and life as a gift, remain unspoken. Clearly,
following the inscrutable technique devised by Jane Austen, the narrative style
implies “not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid” (CR 145). Of course, no one would
seriously contemplate the study of such topics which repose in complete
silence. Yet, in several important areas there is evidence of this technique of
deliberate suppression of pertinent matters by omitting words rather than by
expressing them, deleting words rather than divulging them. Virginia Woolf is known to have made
use of this practice. Her novel Jacob’s
Room is a continuous narrative which describes a void in place of the
central character. According to Northrop Frye, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves “is made up of speeches of
characters constructed precisely out of what they do not say, but what their
behavior and attitudes say in spite of them” (Frye Anatomy 234). Mrs Dalloway
exploits a similar stylistic. This failure of communication thwarts
critical examination of many
concepts which may seem of little relevance to the events occurring in this
novel. It is difficult, admittedly, to analyze matters which have not been
Such games restrict the
readership to an imaginative elite adapted to texts containing many esoteric
allusions in the “unwritten” parts of the text “which suddenly become full of
meaning” (Woolf CR 142). Information
which is concealed or suppressed by equivocations and partial reasoning
contributes to the enigmatic nature of such narratives (Hutchinson 24-26).
Others which derive from preformed language “do not take words directly from
their source … with a consequent greater chance that they may pass unnoticed”
(Hutchinson 57). The reader, it is hoped, will discover such allusions and the
motives as well. The matter to be conveyed may consist in a statement which
seems absurd, or even run counter to accepted opinion but, which on closer
inspection is in fact well founded as the extraordinary; these may at first
Omitted words and suppressed motifs often make matters difficult for
analysis of such issues which might appeal to the reader’s imagination. The aposiopesis
(a sentence fragment in which the missing thought is to be supplied by the
reader’s imagination) serves as a trope or a simple analogy for this
phenomenon; words are missing in both cases. Thus Clarissa comments to Peter
Walsh on her father’s displeasure concerning her suitors: “But he never liked
anyone who –- our friends” (MD 62).
We are invited to imagine these
scenes with Peter as occasions of domestic discord. Here, too, is an
early allusion to the troubled relationship between Clarissa and Peter in which
careful observation invites discovery of other missing thoughts particularly
when Clarissa, in bed with headaches following their quarrels, thinks back.
“How they argued” (MD 53, 9). It
would seem this documents their lovers quarrels, “how Clarissa burst into
tears” (MD 95). Such unspoken hints
are like falling atoms which will shape themselves as a luminous halo if we but
connect the dots (Woolf CR ”Modern
Consequently, overlooked evidence leaves a large gap in the narrative
as the result of such stylistic omissions which are not entirely devoid of
useful meanings. There may be valid connections for various more obvious scholarly
scenarios. Still, it may be just as valid and rather more interesting to
approach suppressed sentimental values first, and to embrace coherent literary
themes such as the familiar marriage theme in place of various topics of a more
erudite nature. Matters of privacy, matters of love “underlie the novel’s mode
of reception” (Segal 6). Ruth Gruber has observed that this novel “is a
constant retracing of past themes” (Evans 73).
Among readers searching for textual richness, through practices which
treat this novel as a “document to be related to some verbal area of study
outside literature,” many fail to recognize the fact that matters pertinent to
literature as a thematic component have been omitted (Northrop Frye Critical Path 15-33). Often compared
unfavorably with James Joyce’s Ulysses,
a similarly problematic work, Mrs
Dalloway, too, makes use of style in narrative related to the significance
of those which obtain in Joyce’s novel (McBride “At Four She Said” 21).
Although it has been said that “Woolf copied Joyce and bungled the imitation,”
the dialogic relationship they share extends beyond the Homeric paradigm
(Garvey 300). Other readers, assuming literature as itself a coherent structure
are oblivious to missing words, some buried but not entirely hidden. Since
examples of conventional practices have already been fully covered elsewhere,
this essay will explore the buried phrases suggesting the marriage theme
involving Peter Walsh, manifested through the device of the “enigma” and its
related ironies instead. Facilitated by the critical tool of various relevant
yet obscured allusions, this essay
will study this theme as an exercise in reception theory, i. e. a theme developed within the
relationship between text and reader.
It may be quite profitable to see “what meaning [can] be discovered
from the stylistic context in literature” (Frye Critical Path 15). This approach should yield much that is
significant in this highly nuanced novel which is the perfect hostess to
unidentified literary allusions (attributions omitted); the critical yield is
substantial when the reader is assisted by references to ancient literature,
such as Homer as in the case of Joyce, which themselves supply productive
guidelines even if important presences have been suppressed. Readers must
calculate the implications of these allusions if they are studied within the
relevant contexts (Iser Implied 228).
Yet, sometimes anything that is inconsistent or what seems to be quite negligible
may escape our notice or may even be deliberately disregarded (Woolf CR 141). For example, when he is
interrupted by the entrance of Elizabeth Dalloway, Peter Walsh offers an
exemplary query with words left out; “Tell me,” he said, seizing her by the
shoulders. “Are you happy, Clarissa? Does Richard –-“ (MD 71). The importance of what Richard may or may not do, a small
problem in communication, will be examined.
Thus, if we see only what seems to make sense, we may reject
important matters which may not fit with preconceived notions instead of considering
a few items in conflict with surface narrative in this so-called realistic
novel. Fantastic elements have no place here, it is presumed. Since important
references are apparently being omitted from a supposedly complete narrative,
some source of assistance must be
found. Anything less would be marked as a vacuous undertaking.
Such omissions have been detected, according to McBride, in James
Joyce’s Ulyssses in which the marital theme is fore-grounded; the unspoken anxiety in Bloom’s
uxoriousness never rises to the surface, however. The Dalloway reader, also,
must discover what is not being said or not being noticed as in Ulysses (see McBride “Watchwords” passim). The demands which this kind of
discourse makes upon the reader are enormous (Iser Implied 232). The rhetoric of omission and studied ambiguity
prevails in several places. “The reader … must be gradually ‘schooled’ by the
novel itself” (McHale 273). Mrs Dalloway is just such a novel.
The narrative concerning the courtship of Clarissa Parry and Peter
Walsh is characterized through this technique of silence regarding the truth of
their relationship. Peter remains one of the problem characters who most
invites a sympathetic reading and who supplies, presumably, much of the
back-story concerning Clarissa Dalloway for which we trust his accuracy. “He
recalls every incident of their painful relationship in precise detail and can
summon up intense emotions of that time in all their power” (Zwerdling 135).
His descriptions of a sepia-tinted past presumably leave little for the reader
to question, but considering the possibility of bias, we should sense that the
seemingly impassioned past may not render the whole story.
Peter’s preoccupations regarding the “truth,” demanding that Clarissa
tell him the truth, is ironic, being precisely the matter which the concerned
reader may never learn (MD 97). This technique of omission is also
found in Joyce’s Ulysses as his hero
struggles with the knowledge of his wife’s infidelity (McBride “Watchwords”
357). The hour of four o’clock being the time of Molly Bloom’s projected
assignation results in the omission of the word “four” and related words from
Joyce’s text thereafter. It seems that a presentation of many matters of
interest have likewise been left out of Mrs
Dalloway. In truth, any presentation “implies selection, and any selection
implies omission” (Iser Implied 231).
Therefore, one must see that Peter is merely ruminating over the
past, sharing duties with the narrator’s observations, as in the dual voice of
free indirect discourse, by way of his represented thought; he feels no need to
justify the mundane specifics with which he is quite familiar. Both Clarissa
and Peter share in several significant but omitted references, although Richard
Dalloway and Sally Seton, too, are guilty of leaving out significant words.
They likewise participate in expressing generalities which leave us wanting. In
free indirect discourse there is “a lack of delimitation between the narrator
and the character’s language.” This is used “to great effect in the detailed
portrayal of a character’s sentiments and feelings and thoughts,” but more
factual details may be fragmentary (Fludernick 12, 79).
Peter indicates that something has been left out, that his
unburdening is somewhat guarded when we find him thinking ironically “pray
God,” that “he might say these things without being overheard” (MD 120). Peter’s ex parte revelations, however, satisfy no one but himself. Readers
must be equipped to handle the elaborate pattern of omission, words they have
failed to overhear, words that force us to read
rather than merely to recognize (Iser Implied
237; Stacy 105).
It hardly needs to be said that Clarissa herself offers a few
generalities of her own point of view concerning Peter and what a marriage with
him might be like: “everything had to be shared; everything gone into”-- with
much that is left out of the pertinent issues (MD 10). Peter’s policy is clearly in conflict with Clarissa’s
currently stated philosophy of matrimony which was then seen as a catastrophe
and which now ostensibly calls for “a little independence” and respect for the
gulf necessarily existing between husband and wife (MD 10, 181). While Peter gives us matters which only appear to be
detailed specifics, Clarissa provides an equally obscure alternative story.
Never one for rash judgment Clarissa reassures herself that she was right to
refuse him, and having little to assist the reader we must take her at her word
(MD 10). Peter who had been in love
with her has much to say about that scene in the little garden by the fountain
which brought matters to a conclusion; if these matters had been ignored and
they had married “they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined” (MD 96,10). Yet this appears to be
merely overstatement typical of
Clarissa’s tendency to exaggerate.
Frequent critical evaluations of Peter’s romantic failings include
“his selfish possessiveness,” and his “aggressive demanding of total
involvement”; or his unseemly chauvinist attitude (Schlack 50; Rosenthal 97).
He appears to justify himself since, perforce, we “see things through Peter’s
eyes” for at least half of the details of the story (Blackstone 76). None of
these observations on Peter’s ways are textually specified; these appraisals in
little details are, rather, critical interpolations of speech events only as
filtered through the reader’s awareness and which depend on “unexamined
assumptions” (Fernald “Thrilling” 32). Still, as Clarissa styles him as
something of a scold, it is clear that her affair with Peter has not been
merely an amusing adventure in Alexander Pope’s toyshop of the heart (See “The
Rape of the Lock,”), a context others have remarked (see Ames and Schlack “Mrs Dalloway” 55).
Although the novel has been styled as a “vehicle for communication,” it seems
that many memorable offerings by Clarissa and Peter are not designed to deliver
useful information (Ruotolo 158).
Clearly, therefore, one such relevant comment is that Clarissa
“simply could not meet the kinds of demands that Peter made on their
relationship” whatever they might have been (Rosenthal 97). Frankness is not a
characteristic of this text. The absence of detail gives the novel the bitter
flavor of the low-hanging fruit of a rather shallow romantic display with little
appeal to more scholarly tastes. Peter’s correct assessment, that their
marriage would not have been successful, summarizes the wisdom of their
separation (MD 236).
Peter frankly admits that his demands have been “absurd”, that he
asked “impossible things”, ambiguous matters which contribute to the enigma;
such comments seem innocent enough yet will be shown to become quite important
(MD 95). “He made terrible scenes”;
often such accounts, out of all proportion, only appear “outwardly trivial”
which is, still, hardly a deal breaker (MD
95; Woolf CR 138-139). Yet Clarissa
will not comply with what is impossible, still less with the absurd. His
statements, however confessional they may seem, are coherent, but they refer to
another context entirely. “They had always this queer power of communicating
without words,” but the reader requires something more. As soul-mates, “going in
and out of each other’s minds,“ Clarissa and Peter share a relationship that seems
to have been consensual, at least intellectually. Yet we are left out of the
particular dialogue which apparently passes between them (MD 90, 94).
Instead, Clarissa married Richard whom Peter claims would make a
perfect hostess of her, (a pejorative position) and “stifle her soul,” all
because she admitted caring too much for “getting on in the world” (MD 114, 115). It seems that Daisy
(Peter’s new amour who is a feature of the “India topos”) will apparently give him what Clarissa (“cold as an icicle”)
finds impossible, absurd. Allusion to the India topos in literary history introduces the exotic, the foreign, the
richly attractive land especially for employees of the Raj such as Peter
(Curtius 159 ff). But, “Why doesn’t [Clarissa] tell us more? Peter, too, deliberately withholds them
from us” (Iser Implied 237). If there
is a reason for being so coy, this is for the reader to discern.
Daisy is trivialized at first by Clarissa whose insight, apparently,
tells her that Daisy “flattered him; she fooled him,” styling her as one of
those “silly, pretty, flimsy nincompoops” in India (MD 68, 10). Something obscured induces Clarissa to make a rather
harsh evaluation. Perhaps she knows something we must discover. It may be
merely jealousy or the fact that the daisy is also an emblem of deceit. What is
not uttered refers to matters of a hidden thematic significance which must be
reconstituted. The reader must discover what is not specified in order to
render the matter conceptually complete and within an appropriate horizon of
expectations by extracting “every shade of meaning” (MD 120).
Daisy’s odd name alone, clearly introducing a form of enigma, should
raise a red flag, perhaps if associated with Daisy Miller, David “Daisy”
Copperfield, or some other literary daisy which has a similarly abbreviated
future. This curious name veils an important element. As in Jane Austen, “the
satire is so just that … it almost escapes our notice” (Woolf CR 141). It seems that “the reader is
left to … fill in the gaps between the lines.” (Iser Implied 182). “The spaces between them were as significant as the
sounds” (MD 33).
“The stylistics of omission assumes a readership capable of
apprehending the important thematic overtones existing between the lines. An
understanding of what is not written is important to an understanding of what
is written”; for example, the hour of Bloom’s wife’s adultery, “at four,” is
consistently obscured (McBride “At Four” 21). Similarly, the daisy points
enigmatically to “the existence of a system of equivalences underlying the
text”; yet there is still a deliberate “withholding of information” (Iser Act 82, 175). Although dramatic irony
results when the reader knows more than the characters, this represents a form
of reverse dramatic irony – it is the characters who understand these unvoiced
matters perfectly, not the reader, a feature which “carries an implicit
compliment to the intelligence of the reader” (Abrams 90).
Linda Hutcheon’s terminology for the written and the not written,
i.e. the “said” and the “unsaid”, illustrates the double-coding that results in
irony (Hutcheon “Irony”). Irony is the result when two incongruous meanings,
one said and the other unsaid, are revealed. Here dramatic irony results with
the conjunction between what appears to be the alienating image of a dutiful,
an “angelic,” a self-sacrificing wife such as might be found in India, compared
with the usually respected generous, loving wife of Western marital tradition.
The dramatic irony of the “unsaid” in Peter’s situation gradually unfolds with
the challenging nomenclature, “Daisy”, a woman who seems to possess the
required characteristics compared with Clarissa who does not.
presents the daisy as the flower of flowers with the curative powers
benefitting those merely holding the daisy, apparently Peter’s Daisy exhibits
a “sense of moral virtue which is
so repulsive in good women,” yet lacking in such good women as Clarissa (MD 118). Still, the daisy and its
significance have much to offer. As Virginia Woolf herself has suggested we
could do well to study “the daisy in Chaucer” which is featured in his Legend of Good Women (Woolf CR 185). We might be accused of
deliberate negligence if we disregard this pointed reference, keeping in mind
Clarissa’s green dress and Chaucer’s daisy clothed all in green, identified specifically
as the mythical queen Alcestis.
The daisy issuing from Woolf’s meticulous scholarship must receive its
due attention. Exploiting the myth as a structuring device, the text develops
into “a form of enigma which is created by unexpected, even willful, handling
of the mythical material” (Hutchinson 76). Peter’s reference to “good women” is
clearly an indication that Chaucer’s Legend
of Good Women must be relevant. With the introduction of the daisy as a
subtle mode of guidance, a potentially significant horizon of expectations has
been introduced. Exploiting the fairy-tale of Alcestis in Mrs Dalloway corresponds to the equally fantastic adventures of the
pseudo-Odysseus in Joyce’s novel.
Accordingly, Chaucer, accepting the conventions of the daisy, makes it
the specific type of Alcestis smuggled into the narrative as Peter’s Daisy –
white purity following the light of the sun – restorer of the current of life,
healer of wounds, soother of pains. Still it seems that, in the novel “words
are used to conceal rather than reveal” (McBride “Watchwords” 356). The
“unsaid” of Chaucer’s daisy concerns Euripides’s tragi-comic amplification of
the Greek folktale Alcestis (438 bce) concerning a famous host: Admetus,
a man with a reputation for a godlike
hospitality. Contrary to passing opinion however, he is not a “feckless bon vivant” (Heracles is the party
animal here); similarly he did not “make the Fates drunk” in order to save
himself (Apollo did that),
(Fernald “Review”). He is a
generous host, a perfect host whom the gods have granted a boon, rewarding him for his famous
hospitality, which permits him to escape death (Rehm 94). He needs but find a
willing substitute instead of dying himself. Further study reveals details such
as the mythos concerning [Admetus], the all too mortal king of
Thessaly facing death, who has “a god [Apollo] for a slave, a demigod
[Heracles] for a friend, and most importantly of all, a generous wife
[Alcestis] who is willing to die for him” (Arrowsmith 13). And so she goes to
the Underworld. The only condition for the gift of her life, truly a gift, to
her widowed husband is that he must not remarry.
In her absence Admetus,
now bereaved yet unexpectedly receiving Heracles as a guest, considers the cold
embrace of a “body double,” a statue, a “surrogate,” a “cold delight” as a
replacement for his beloved wife. This coldness is suggestive of the coldness
Peter sees in Clarissa. “The Alcestis
uses the statue motif primarily as a rhetorical expression of love in absence”
and of expressing sorrow as well (Segal 48). In the comic finale Alcestis, however, mute as a statue and
veiled as a bride, famously makes her dramatic reappearance at the side of
Heracles to have her life again with Admetus. That is, the queen, Alcestis,
dies on behalf of her husband and then
magically returns, (courtesy of Heracles for his gracious host) when the
strong man has wrestled her away from Death in the Underworld. After this, as
the text quotes from the ancient source, Alcestis lives together with the man
who “had not the courage to die, but gave in exchange the woman he married,”
and apparently so, happily ever after, having learned from the ancient
platitude that knowledge comes through suffering (Alcestis ca. line 955, MD
196). This is the consequence of Heracles’s raucous visit after which he
acknowledges his inadvertent violation of the formal observances of mourning when
in the bereaved household (see Milton below), all of which is both impossible
However, like James
Joyce’s exploiting the nostalgic Homeric epic tale for his own novel,
suppressed but for the chapter titles which indicate that the Odyssey supplies the context, this
suppressed Greek folktale about Alcestis also energizes the rather banal
narrative of Clarissa’s marital life. It
“punctures the illusory self-containment of realistic representation”
(Iser Act 81). “As an intertext for Mrs Dalloway, this story … has some promise” (Fernald: “Review”: 237). Alienating as she
is to modern women like Clarissa, the daisy, Alcestis, is the poster child for
the type of self-sacrificing angel in the house that Peter apparently requires.
Many like Peter have pursued this type of woman. The role performed by this
“Alcestis” which Peter values is remote from Clarissa’s nature. The paradox,
however, provides the structural principle for the whole work.
“But suppression of the truth is one of the trademarks of Euripides’s
play” (Nielsen 94). “The
equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’, in the Alcestis myth, is death, … death denied
and death accepted” (Bradley 113).“The mythic parallel [for Mrs Dalloway] here is more the nature of
an explanatory hypothesis, and is scarcely to be interpreted as the return of
the myth. It provides simply a repertoire of patterns serving an overall
strategy through which the present-day world is to be presented” (Iser Implied 200). Allusions, therefore, link
two or more concepts which normally exist in two different cultural contexts.
See, for instance, evidence of this repertoire in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Ibsen’s The Doll’s House in which Nora, like
Alcestis, will sacrifice herself for her husband, according to Brian Johnston.
Although Alcestis, Chaucer’s daisy, is nowhere mentioned in this
novel, she is obviously projected as Daisy, a woman in India who is currently
married. In later literature the story is sometimes referenced as King Admetus
and his wife, even unnamed. There is here, rather, an elaborate pattern, within
a concealing verbiage of omission of reference, characterizing Alcestis without
naming her while the reader must resort to “the identification of typologies of
plot and scene” (Bradley 112). This omission, of course, contributes to the
supposed realism of Mrs Dalloway.
Some inspection reveals what is not specified, that the famous royal,
loyal wife of Thessaly is stylistically obfuscated within Peter’s highly
selective expression. His intentions to acquire a fully self-sacrificing wife,
an “Alcestis”, are completely obscured. The crucial elements are those omitted;
the most important matter, Clarissa’s gift, is artfully concealed as well. The
subject of vicarious sacrifice benefiting a person whose imminent death would
be repulsive to him calls for a surrogate victim. Clarissa who explicitly
wishes to have her life over again is not a candidate for this role although
having her life over is quite possible in a circular novel (MD 14). Paradoxically, however, in order
to have one’s life over again, one must first die, lacking a substitute; life
must come to an end, as Salman Rushdie reminds us (Satanic Verses). But everywhere Clarissa’s accent falls on vitality
against the gesture of self-sacrifice.
In Alcestis, the primary
concern remains as the problem of inescapable human mortality, a perspective
Clarissa shares with Peter. Clarissa’s meditations focus on some form of death,
to cease completely or to somehow survive; and her reluctance for
self-sacrifice suggests that her fundamental problem is not dying but the
deadly requisite of selfless devotion and its likeness to human mortality. Thus
the discourse redefines the boundaries between man and god, woman and myth
(Arrowsmith 5). Clarissa has pondered “whether she must cease completely,” and
for her “how unthinkable death was,” while recalling that Peter had married on
the boat going to India (MD 12, 185).
As Peter’s wife, Clarissa ponders if they both survived, would it be consoling
for them to live in each other, a prospect which has deeper significance in the
context of Alcestis (MD 12). Even her equivocal quote from Othello, ”if it were now to die ‘twere
now to be most happy” belongs to the erotic lexicon (Othello refers to sexual
death as the consummation of his marriage), not to death itself (see Schlack “A
Freudian Look” 57). As Clarissa knows, following the same convention, “there
was an embrace in death” (MD 281).
Embrace, a euphemism for sex, is consonant.
Chaucer introduces, in a nutshell, Queen Alcestis “that turned was
into a dayesye– She that was for hire housbande chees to dye” (Legend “Prologue” lines 510-512). Modern
prose translations of the Greek Alcestis
such as that by Moses Hadas and John McLean here or in William Arrowsmith’s
verse offer greater intelligibility than the stuffy heroic couplets of Gilbert Murray
however. Yet his notes serve the modern reader well.
The remarkable generosity that Alcestis manifests in dying for her
husband, the “catastrophe,” is debated in Plato’s Symposium 179 c-e. Phaedrus naturally claims that Alcestis died for
love. Diotima, on the other hand, asserts that her motive was for enduring fame,
in a chivalric past, having made the conventional trip to Hades like a Homeric
hero and having come back (Plato Symposium
208d). Northrop Frye includes Alcestis within the group of “calumniated women”
who are “violated by death and then vindicated by being restored to life” (Frye
Anatomy 219). The inclusion by
subterfuge of the Alcestis tale forms the nucleus of the relationship between
Clarissa and Peter and overturns some of the fundamental assumptions about Mrs Dalloway. Other things as well may
These heroic attributes of Alcestis represent “a considerable gain in the face of
long-standing literary misogyny,” and hence she is often featured in women’s
studies (O’Higgins 82). Euripides does not solve this quandary of feminine
generosity; he only supplies the pertinent events. Known to be a severely economical dramatist, Euripides is
here the most severely so, as economical as Virginia Woolf; and like other
Greek dramas, this one also displays a universalizing tendency, the characters
appearing in generic, not individual ways (Arrowsmith 4). Yet he leaves nothing
out. “Grief for the dying queen reaches out from her domestic realm to include
Admetus’s entire kingdom … . The physical weakness of her last moments
contrasts with her role as savior and rescuer” (Segal 9, 77). She dramatizes an
unearthly reminiscence of vicarious sacrifice according to the forthcoming
Christian code. According to Lévi-Strauss, “if two myths go together in some
sense – if they have the same meaning or perform the same function – then any
formal similarities that can be discovered are likely to be pertinent” (Culler
45-460). It is tempting to assume that in the death of Septimus Smith, who has
been viewed as a “Christ figure” and as Clarissa’s “double”, he serves as an
“Alcestis” for her as suggested by his enigmatic words, “I’ll give it you” (MD 226). Rather, he offers an enigmatic
suggestion of words having been left out as he ponders an offer to communicate
some forgotten message (MD 148).
Septimus, as foil, however communicates with a parallel motif which accentuates
Clearly for Alcestis as for anyone, the prospect of death is
abhorrent and the queen’s audience is expected to feel a frisson of horror. “To
shock and offend is exactly what Euripides is trying to achieve here” (Beye
note 13). Admetus’s characterization remains troubling, even after his
realization in the aftermath that life without Alcestis is not worth living.
“The negative view [of this man] has tended to predominate” (Segal 251 note
22). There is the skillful presentation of light and dark moments; as Sappho
has said, if dying were good the gods would do it too (Sappho 201 LP).
Clarissa’s horror of death or something like it and her indomitable
vitality have somehow been interpreted as signs of her subconscious inclination
toward suicide when, to the contrary, she actually aspires to have her life
over again (MD 286, 231, 14). On the
other hand she is bravely holding up under the knowledge of her own mortality
as the consequence of a bad bargain. This seemingly would cast her in the role
of a person making a willing self-sacrifice. Instead, “she enjoyed life immensely” and even her famous party is
dedicated to life, convictions leading to conflict (MD 118, 184). In Alcestis
it is the hospitable king, not his wife, who is the beneficiary of the scheme
designed by the gods. Being risk averse and secure, Clarissa feels “those
ruffians the Gods, who never lost a chance of hurting, thwarting and spoiling
human lives were seriously put out if, all the same, you behaved like a lady” (MD 184, 117).
An infelicitous suitor indeed, Peter’s covert quest for an Alcestis
figure in the past has clearly been unsuccessful with regard to his relationship
with Clarissa. “She would be frightfully sorry for him; she would think what in
the world she could do to give him pleasure (short always of the one thing)“
conveying not only what Clarissa has said but also what she has left unsaid (MD 236; Woolf CR 145); the one unspecified gift being the gift of her life is a
significant omission. Obviously, Peter is not inclined to submit to his own
death which now might be thought imminent. Thank heavens that Clarissa refused
to marry him (MD 68). There will be
no consummation, euphemistic or
otherwise. His lacking a
recognition of the properly human place in the worldly scheme of things
suggests that Peter, like Admetus, is not a man who knows himself. Each man
must do his own dying, sexually and otherwise, not constrain others to do his
dying for him (Arrowsmith 11). Here, Peter’s aggressive demands, his selfish
possessiveness are consonant with an apparent request for wifely generosity as
The refusal scenario is anticipated when Clarissa remembers his
heated words, “cold, heartless, a
prude he called her. Never could she understand how he cared” (MD 10). When Peter and Clarissa meet at
the dribbling fountain in the garden (a very phallic object) Peter demands,
“Tell me the truth” several times, expressing the underlying conundrum in this
novel which concerns suppression of the truth (MD 96-97). Here again, his request is coherent, intelligible, but
the substance of his desires, the nature of the gift remains unstated. Here is
the deliberate withholding of information. The descriptions suggest an erotic
situation in full throb, Peter grinding against something physically hard. “She
Considering the unluckily symbolic dribbling phallic fountain which
is broken and Peter’s later admission of his inability to come up to the
scratch, it would appear that it is his impotence of obscure provenance (“He was not altogether manly,”) not
Clarissa’s rigidity which is at fault, i. e. it is his inability to induce her
to “die” in the euphemistic Shakespearean sense (MD 203). This is Peter’s version of the events even though there
has been evidence in his favor as he has discovered; “Something very important
has happened” (MD 96). Perhaps it
represents a premature finding of temporary manliness. As for her life,
Clarissa would give him anything “short of the one thing.” There is no
indication at that time as to what is the gift she would withhold, but she has
her own agenda. Since Clarissa, too, would like to have her life over again, she
and Peter have this much in common, an aversion to even a metaphoric death
excepting that his marital demands on her, as he has admitted, are absurd,
impossible (MD 14). Besides for
Clarissa, who will behave like a lady, there is Richard. Always “coming down in
white” might suggest that their marriage is in view but refers to meeting Sally
Seton (MD 51, 74, 281).
Daisy, on the other hand, “would give him everything! She cried …
everything he wanted!” her omitted gift of life “filtered through the consciousness
of [Peter] (as in Jane Austen and Dickens)” (MD 238; McHale 277). Virginia Woolf often makes use of comments
from her companion book, The Common
Reader, in order to clarify obscure issues such as preterition. As Jane
Austen represents her heroines, the narrator here “makes us wonder why an ordinary act of kindness [the
omitted gift of life] becomes suddenly full of meaning” (Woolf CR 142). This gift, however is not an ordinary act of kindness.
Peter, aware that he has “got himself into a mess” speculates on marriage with
Daisy. “For him it would be all very well, but what about her?” (MD 238). Daisy’s friend, Mrs. Burgess,
has the ordinary situation correctly assessed. In addition to giving up her
children and being a woman whose elderly husband, Peter, had died, “She’d be a
widow with a past ”(MD 238-239). This
diminished social position would be true in the normal scheme of things, even
outside Daisy’s projected role as Alcestis. Apparently she might not choose to
keep her end of the bargain; perhaps she is indeed likely to fool him as
Clarissa suggests. Peter, unaware, says he “didn’t mean to die yet,” a rather
ambiguous correspondence that suggests an enforcement of Daisy’s sacrificial
role in his scheme which would stifle her soul (MD 239).
Peter’s reputation is such that he is often in love with the wrong
woman, a feature of his covert pseudo-Homeric emulation of Odysseus, a nod to
Joyce; and further, he exhibits a hubristic shallowness for living at another’s
expense, having one’s own way. His marital error is that, like Admetus, he
fails to perceive his proper modal limitations, his humanity, his mortality
(Arrowsmith 14f). Other characters
in Alcestis, both human and divine,
recognize their modal constraints. Even the gods “cannot have everything
[their] own way” which echoes Death’s speech to Apollo (MD 117; Alcestis ca. line
63). Peter must discover for himself “some way out of his troubles” which will
in turn affirm “the conspicuous nobility” of whoever his “Alcestis” at the time
may be (Bradley 116). “The intrinsic issue is whether anything of value can, or
indeed ought, to be salvaged from an offering that has been fraudulently
manipulated,” while alternating between the literal and the metaphorical
(Nielsen 92). The mention of the “wrong women” in Peter’s past implies failures
in selecting a wife who would agree to give him everything he wanted and then
go through with it.
It will be remembered, a minor detail, that Peter married a woman he
met on the boat going to India, whose fate has here been left out, and
Clarissa’s exaggerated “horror of the moment” when she learned of this event is
clear (MD 10). Would this woman, did
she, give him everything he wanted? Has she died? Was she an earlier, perhaps
unsuccessful, “Alcestis”? Is Peter in London to arrange Daisy’s divorce or his
own or does he still have a wife? (MD
10). The omissions of information here and Clarissa’s curious horror are very
suspicious. Ironic advice given to Alcestis’s husband Admetus has been that
“you should court more wives so that more can die for you” a counsel Peter
seems to have followed (Euripides Alcestis ca. line 722). These matters
remain unclear. Since Peter has asserted that Richard would metaphorically stifle
Clarissa’s soul he speculates on the literal “death of her soul”; whether it is
social or moral, he finds to his surprise that she is not dead (MD 89, 75). The Alcestis model seems not
to have applied to her as Richard’s wife or that she was unqualified for the
role Peter apparently expected; that is, he indulges in the bigotry of low
expectations. Still smarting over
losing Clarissa to Richard he contends that “there’s nothing in the world so
bad for some women as marriage”; a sort of business contract is indicated, with
Clarissa, the perfect hostess, sitting “at the head of the table taking
infinite pains with some old buffer who might be useful to Dalloway,” (MD 61, 119). “Such marriages are
profitable to mankind … or to marry is not worth while”, lines suggesting that
for some, marriage is rather like a mode of commerce, “a matter of human
barter” (Euripides Alcestis ca. lines 627-628; Bradley 120; Nielsen 92). The
narrative that Peter sustains defamiliarizes the traditional elements and
constructs fragments of the Alcestis mythos in a negative fashion, which leaves
Clarissa in jeopardy of death as in the normal course of things.
And so we come to the present, Clarissa’s party where among her
guests are Peter Walsh, her childhood friend Sally Seton, and of course her
husband Richard Dalloway. The guests have nothing to add on the subject of
Alcestis until a scholarly Professor Brierly ironically suggests that one might
require “some slight training in the classics in order to appreciate Milton”;
again we are offered a bit of intra-textual instruction although the specifics
have been omitted (MD 268). This
comment is as suspicious as the daisy, coming out of an impromptu scholarly
lecture at a party. On the other hand, taking him at his word means recalling
Milton’s thematic Sonnet On His Deceased
Wife (#23), “brought to [him] like
Alcestis wrestled away from Death by Heracles.” This faint allusion seems not
to resonate with Clarissa until it may do so “in rich ways with Clarissa’s
character and her distress at learning of Septimus’s death” (Fernald: “Review” 238). Otherwise, failed
communication is integral to the novel’s rhetorical design (Bruss 167).
As the party continues, there are several matters of problematic
references that are typical both of the failure to communicate and relevant to
the Alcestis myth. There is the case of Sally Seton, Clarissa’s close friend in
youth. The years have not been kind to Sally according to Clarissa, who
suppresses her unkind thought: “For she hadn’t looked like that” (MD 260). Again, we
find that there are several other matters in which words are used to conceal
rather than reveal in the rhetoric of suppression. Peter thinks that, looking
“like that”, her unstated, frankly full-figured appearance is a change due to
motherhood without crediting Sally for her subtle influence upon the
relationship between him and Clarissa. Again, these implications, repeatedly
obscure, appear in Peter’s reference to Clarissa’s silly behavior, “to marry like that,” using a phrase
which will become significant (MD
289). “The stylistics of omission assume important thematic overtones” (McBride
“At Four” 21). For example, Sally’s influence has been memorable as when she
implored Peter “to carry off Clarissa to save her from the Hughs and Dalloways
… who would stifle her soul … make a mere hostess of her, encourage her
worldliness” (MD 114). Obviously
Richard has not stifled her soul, and the contextual word “elope” never appears
in the text although the meaning of Sally’s proposition, “carry off Clarissa,”
is perfectly clear. The importance of this has gone without saying for most
Sally introduces the subject of elopements, implied, if not made
specific in so many words, underplayed until now. The flattered reader is
required to supply meanings which have been omitted. Perhaps Peter would have
gladly eloped with Clarissa, perhaps has even made the proposal himself, but in
the scene at the fountain Clarissa said, ”It’s no use. It’s no use. This is the
end.” (MD 97). And now, Clarissa has pondered her
current status, “this being Mrs. Dalloway, not even Clarissa any more” (MD 14). Such, it seems, is the
catastrophe of marriage, a kind of death resulting in the loss of personal
identity unlike Alcestis, renowned for her wifely heroism. Clarissa’s recent
chat with Peter that morning reminds her of what her life might have been, and
is not, if they had eloped, if she had “run away, lived with Peter” according
to the suggestion of the wild, the daring, the romantic Sally Seton (MD 71).
While Clarissa meditates in the little room during the party, her
friends discuss her at the same time. (This subtlety of structure appears
sequentially at the level of narration but simultaneously at the level of
story.) Both Peter and Sally have recalled Clarissa’s youthful Freudian slip in
calling Richard Dalloway “Wickham”; the name of the obvious cad who eloped with
the youngest and silliest Bennet daughter in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice; it casts a long shadow (MD 92, 285). Sally, unfortunately, had
over-used the joke on Wickham, earning Clarissa’s displeasure: “We’ve had
enough of that feeble joke” (MD
96). And Richard famously
identified himself, to Sally’s amusement, “My name is Dalloway,” not Wickham.
“And the marriage had been, Sally supposed, a success? […[ And were they happy
together” (MD 287, 293).
Now, Peter, too, at last
brings Clarissa’s marriage into question conversing with Sally while Clarissa,
the perfect hostess, remains in the little room, wrestling with death, and more
like Admetus than Alcestis “juggling the respective merits of hospitality
versus bereavement” for the young man who killed himself, effectively but not
actually, at her party (Nielsen 92). His actual death is, oddly, “an attempt to
communicate” when ironically, her narrative itself has been a failure of
communication (MD 280). Peter, still
concerned with Clarissa’s marriage, insists, “But it had been a silly thing to
do … to marry like that,” an unkind thing to say, a threat of slanders which
Clarissa incurs when she leaves the two to themselves (MD 289). This brings yet another challenge to writerly
Both Peter and Sally, talking behind her back, apparently share a
knowledge of the circumstances of Clarissa’s marriage with which we have not
been acquainted. Peter considers their unstated marriage mode, “like that,” as
something silly, still more curious. Defensively, Sally, justifying herself,
remembers she had referred to Richard as “Wickham” (but it was Clarissa who did
so), causing her to “flare up”. The issue concerning Wickham requires an attentive
reader. “Why not call Richard ‘Wickham’”? (MD
96, 285). Peter has described Clarissa as having ”a mixture of amusement and pride” (MD 119, emphasis added). Now Sally believes Peter comments on the
subject “out of pride,” that it was a silly thing to do,
with diction that alludes to the Wickham of the Austen novel (perhaps teasing Peter) (MD 289 emphasis added).
It seems they are happily married considering Richard’s extended
epithalamic meditation (“hail, wedded bliss”) and his intention to say that he
loved her, “Happiness is this”, composed as he walks home at three that afternoon (MD 177-180). True to
the rhetoric of omission, however, he never manages to say he loves her “in so
many words” (MD 175). This contentment is surprising since
Peter implies an unusual eventuality that he styles as “they married like
that.” We are left to speculate as to what “marrying like that” might be and as
a consequence of which they may be unhappy. In the context of eloping, however, which is material to
Wickham in Austen’s novel and Sally’s proposal that Peter elope with Clarissa,
we can hardly be blamed for surmising that Clarissa Parry and Richard Dalloway,
the “Wickham” of earlier days, must have eloped. A writerly perspective here is
Meanwhile, Clarissa has lived the life of a woman of unlimited
expectations. Never for a moment is she tempted to express trivia in lofty
terms. “With a mind of her own” she is seen as “transparent in some ways, so inscrutable in others” (MD 116-117). She, too, responds to
Sally’s rhetorical question, were they happy: “It was due to Richard; she had
never been so happy,” even with twice his wits (MD 282, 116). Yet, feeling very like the
young man who had killed himself whose death is “an attempt to communicate” she
finds he has introduced matters of life and death and has made her feel the
beauty of them both (MD 280).
After her session in the little room, suggestive of a journey to the
Underworld, ”her dress flamed, her body burnt”, she renews her promise to her
friends that she would return to them, and repeatedly exclaims, she must go back (MD 275). Since her party has been an offering to life, “to combine,
to create,” the phrase “Fear no more” is the mystical reassurance she receives
for the shock which has followed the transparent pattern that the Alcestis originated when she must have
perished. “She had escaped” (MD
Hogarth edition 278). Explicitly she says that she felt, oddly, somehow very
like him and glad that he had done it, “thrown it away [while they went on
living” (MD Hogarth edition 280)].
The inscrutable young man, like Daisy, has given her everything she wants; that
gift which allows her to “gradually revive” with Richard, living as Mrs.
Dalloway when she might have “perished” living as Mrs. Walsh, is effectively
recalled. This is the gift with which he had earlier endowed her in so many
words: “I’ll give it you,” he had cried (MD
282, 226). Whoever the intended, Clarissa is the beneficiary. It was his gift.
His embrace in death, a substitute for hers own, literally turns her life
This proximity to death elicits Clarissa’s gratitude. “No pleasure
could equal, she thought, … [having] lost herself in the process of living to
find it, with a shock of delight” (MD
282). This represents a change from the woman of the morning visit with Peter,
clearly unsuited to being cast in the role of Alcestis merely for being a
woman. Here Clarissa’s persona, apparently thematic of one calumniated by Peter
and Sally, is instead one, like Admetus, whose little heroic encounter with
mortality in the Underworld is resolved by the young man, Clarissa’s
“Alcestis”, in order that she might renew her life. “But she must go back … .
She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room,” now as
mute as Alcestis (MD 284). Peter remarks, “It is Clarissa” coming
through the door as when she first entered the story, one door with squeaking
hinges opened by Mrs Dalloway; another, in memory, opened by the youthful
Clarissa. Now, in effect, she comes back through the door as Clarissa to the
beginning of the story, to have her life over again as the beneficiary of
vicarious sacrifice. The paradox lies in the novel itself which describes a
The pattern of overall strategies that represent novelistic realism
also masks typologies of plot and scene pertinent to the Alcestis fantasy with aspects of marriage troped as analogues to
the concerns found in the Euripidean play. Allegory, necessarily, depends on
the stylistics of omission in order to translate realism as fantasy. The covert
allegory serves as “an imaginative analysis of contemporary reality which is …
stated if not solved” (Fowler 6). In Alcestis,
a coherent set of circumstances “signify a second order of correlated meanings”
(Abrams 6). In the statement of allegory of the modern marriage as a
catastrophe, Clarissa has found that being Mrs Dalloway, not even Clarissa
anymore, may involve a kind of death or at least a concurrent loss of personal
identity (MD 50). The trope of fantasy,
of the skillfully braided Alcestis folktale, incorporates magic realism
consisting of an ordered substrate extracted from the chaos of raw data.
If Chaucer, like Virginia Woolf, withdraws to the time of the Greeks
or the Romans, it is only that his Alcestis leads him there. “The ‘timeless
present’ which is an essential characteristic of literature means that the
literature of the past can always be active in that of the present” (Curtius
15). But Chaucer with his daisy “has no desire to wrap himself round in
antiquity” (Woolf CR 16). The
marriage theme addressed in Euripides’s work is as evident in Pride and Prejudice or Mrs Dalloway
as it is in Alcestis. “We know that
though this world resembles, it is not in fact, our daily world… Everything happens here more quickly and
more intensely, and with better order than in life” (Woolf CR 18).
“The enduring form of
life which Virginia Woolf speaks of is not manifested on the printed page; it
is a product of the interaction between text and reader” (Iser Act 168). “As the reader uses the
various perspectives offered [him/her] by the text in order to relate the
patterns, [of tropes, imagery and, lexicon], and the schematized views to one
another, s/he sets the work in motion” (Iser Implied 275). But its words maintain “that enchantment which keeps
them glittering in the mind long afterwards” (Woolf CR 18). “Think away the surface animation, the likeness to life,
and there remains, to provide a deeper pleasure, an exquisite discrimination of
human values” (Woolf CR 139). If
Alcestis is revealed as a great culture hero, then it would seem that Clarissa
had missed her chance of being heroic. On the other hand her affiliation with
Jane Austen’s novel and the technique of the unwritten word illuminates the
suppressed significance of her marriage and of “Wickham” in relation to the
marriage theme in Mrs Dalloway. It
almost escapes our notice after so much has been left out, a wider truth
appears which absolutely must remain.
In conclusion, then, Peter and Clarissa both seek the same unique
state of ontological nature in different ways. Clarissa’s style is to have her
life over (MD 14). Peter’s is to
preserve his; Clarissa’s self-sufficiency differs from Peter’s predatory style.
The narrative is coy regarding this matter which is exposed only vaguely, but
their opposite differences are clearly manifested as two incompatible ways of
seeking and achieving a similar object, becoming immortal – almost ageless,
eternal. They pursue the same concerns, however, by way of parallel paths which
can never ever meet. Only through all that is being deleted, as Margaret McBride
has aptly stated, does one begin
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