Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Mrs. Dalloway's Animals and the Humanist Laboratory

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Mrs. Dalloway's Animals and the Humanist Laboratory

Article excerpt

Mrs. Dalloway's sustained critique of the structures of hierarchy and dominance that underpin patriarchy, imperialism, and the class system extends to species difference and the obsession with mastery that determines the boundary between the human and nonhuman. The novel explores the various social institutions and spaces that actively, even violently, produce the idealized concept of the human, a concept that the sciences of Woolf's time were steadily, if ambivalently, eroding.' This distinction between human and nonhuman orders of being has been called "the most devastating imaginary of our epoch" (Esposito 1.61), and the growing interest in this threshold across a range of disciplines from literary studies and philosophy to the social and biological sciences has focused attention on complex ethical issues regarding medical research, zoological captivity, the consumption and production of food, and environmental sustainibility. As Margot Norris explains, "In the process of reorienting the human subject within its metaphysical and ethical cosmos, these theoretical resources have begun to recuperate the human qua animal from ideological repression, marginalization, and demonization" (9). This recuperation not only appreciates the human animal as a. being distinct from the cultural entity, but also challenges the very idea that the domains of the social and cultural are exclusively human.

When Clarissa Dalloway ruminates on her love of life throughout a June day in. 1923, she pauses to savor her "secret deposit of exquisite moments" and to acknowledge the debt she owes to those who have given her life its particular luster: one must "repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it" (28-29). For all Clarissa's biocentric exuberance, what informs her generous gratitude toward those other sentient beings, whether human or nonhuman, who support her way of life is an unshakeable belief that it is singularly "blessed and purified" (28). Woolf's oft-cited intention "to criticise the social system" (Diary 248) in Mrs. Dalloway extends to a confounding of the categories of species, as in the above quotation, where servants are separated from dogs and canaries only by a frivolous affirmation.The social hostess clears her conscience over a debt of gratitude, the repayment of which she endlessly defers, to the animal that produces her exalted way of life, regardless of the class, ethnicity, or even species of that

The figure of the human surfaces. in Mrs. Dalloway in. a number of animal guises: the birds that chirp in Greek to the war veteran Septimus; the hatred Clarissa experiences as a hoofed brute within herself; and the resemblance of the German outcast Doris Kilman to a "prehistoric monster" (123), for example. Through these and other unreconstructed images of "man" as the animal of the polis, Woolf unearths the very fantasy by which humanity constructs its exalted status through the violent repression of the animal and animalistic. As a deliberate counter to this, the offices of the Harley Street nerve specialist Sir William Bradshaw provide an experimental laboratory in which the idea of the human is artificially produced through the doctor's division of the populace into different zones of life whose breeding can be regulated and "unsocial impulses" (99) contained.

Ultimately what is at stake, as in much of Woolf's fiction, is the changing shape of human character as its unexpected relations come to light. Set in London following Britain's victory in the first global war, the novel depicts the humanistic paradigm at the center of the empire that drives its self-image. At the same time, Woolf suggests the culture's demise through the very social strategies and sciences--medical, eugenical, and evolutionary--that work to define its place at the top of a great chain of being, itself understood as a geo-political as well as metaphysical hierarchy. …

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