Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The Unwitting Anarchism of Mrs. Dalloway

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The Unwitting Anarchism of Mrs. Dalloway

Article excerpt

"I'll give it you!" yells Septimus Warren Smith as he leaps to impale himself in one of Mrs. Dalloway's climactic scenes. But to whom exactly is he talking? And what exactly is this "it" he proposes to give? He talks most directly to the approaching Dr. Holmes, the "brute with blood-red nostrils" ever "on him," and by jumping from the window he gives, most immediately, his life. But beyond the literal answers (1) lie others that affect how we read the novel politically, answers that affect how we think of Virginia Woolf politically. The shell-shocked veteran's decision to "throw it all away," as Clarissa Dalloway later describes it, is neither an act of despair on Septimus's part, nor an act of psychosis. It is instead a defiant cry against institutional society, an assertion of free will when faced with the prospect of having none. Septimus attempts to preserve self-governance, to claim the sanctity of the individual and his or her right to determine how to pursue his or her self-interest. What makes the nature of his cry somewhat startling, however, is that by showing this self-determination to be ceaselessly thwarted and corrupted by institutions, and by showing it to be continually renegotiated in the communal web of everyday existence, Mrs. Dalloway displays a persistent infusion with the philosophy of nineteenth-century anarchism.

That this anarchism be "unwitting," as this essay claims, seems unlikely in someone who observes herself and society as sharply as Woolf. Though politically astute, Woolf never mentions anarchism or anarchist thinkers in her writing. Lucio Ruotolo has noted that despite her admiration for Tolstoy, anarchism never appears in her writing on him; neither does anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin, though her father Leslie Stephen once wrote a public letter in his support (231, 253). (2) But considering the status of "anarchism" in the 1920s may offer some explanation. In the popular imagination, the term by this time was well-wrapped with connotations of random, senseless violence. Anarchism as political practice, as the actions and words of those who labeled themselves "anarchists," had drifted a great deal from its nineteenth-century philosophical roots. Thus what many of Woolf's day considered "anarchism" was, at best, a narrow fringe of anarchist thought. Woolf thought of her own political beliefs under various terms, yet the specific perception and valuation of the world promoted in Mrs. Dalloway is closely akin to classical anarchism.

When writing Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf did not feel her challenging ideas could be properly expressed in the dominant narrative aesthetics of the time--the realist novel. She describes her belief in building new forms from new ideas in her 1928 introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel. In it she answers critical speculation that the novel's unique aesthetic grew merely from her dissatisfaction with the current styles:

Dissatisfied the author may have been; but her dissatisfaction was primarily with nature for giving an idea, without providing a house for it to live in. The novelists of the preceding generation had done little--after all why should they?--to help. The novel was the obvious lodging, but the novel it seemed was built on the wrong plan. Thus rebuked, the idea started as the oyster starts or the snail to secrete a house for itself. (E4 550)

Though her diary notes indicate that with Mrs. Dalloway she wanted to "criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense" (D2 248), Woolf did not explicitly identify the "idea" animating Mrs. Dalloway to be anarchism--she does not identify the idea at all--nor do any of the novel's characters explicitly pursue or promote anarchist political activity, though Clarissa, Sally, and Peter all held radical socialist opinions as young adults. But if we cannot find a clear label at the novel's origin, the novel itself--the "house" the idea "secretes"--will suggest the contours of her idea. …

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