Mrs Dalloway and The Hours: Life in Light of Death
Although Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1924) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (2002) were published for mass viewing almost a decade apart, both works feature life and death as a prominent theme throughout the course of each respective narrative. The novel and film both use death as a contemplation on the nature of life; whether that be as a meditation on the longevity or mortality of life beyond death, how convention and conformity lead to the “death of the soul”, or how despite the fact that death is omnipresent, life must go on regardless. Through the use of a myriad of multi-faceted and deeply complex characters, both Woolf and Cunningham explore unique ideas of life in light of death, and how death affects and subtly influences those who are still living.
The theme of metaphoric (in contrast to physical or tangible) death in both works is arguably what underpins the narrative and drive the plot — as well as its characters, exploring the so-called “death of the soul.” In this case, Woolf and Daldry explore vast concepts that commonly come hand in hand with the umbrella themes of life and death, such as existentialism, self-fulfilment, the nature of suffering and so on. In Mrs. Dalloway, the person who perhaps best embodies the fierce struggle between metaphoric life and death is the psychologically troubled and highly complicated veteran Septimus Warren Smith. Septimus has always been shrouded by death, whether that be from his fantastical (and sometimes horrific) visions or personal experience. When we first gain insight into the veteran’s inner thoughts, readers (modern ones, at least) are largely positioned to view him as a relatively stereotypical victim of PTSD and mental illness, who seeks death as an escape from the suffering and torment that is considered life. However, as we continue to follow Septimus’s journey through London, we see that this is far from the case. Septimus is a deeply intellectual, and formerly sensitive individual, who can more accurately be described as someone who experiences incredibly heightened feelings of emotions, albeit through a lens of post-war trauma and delusion. Due to the unaccepting societal attitudes at that time and the neglect he felt from society in the form of staunchly prejudicial medical institutions (among other reasons), Septimus’s story culminated in the “rather melodramatic business of opening the window and throwing himself out.”
The tragedy is compounded by the fact that this act of suicide comes during a brief period of reprieve from his mental illness that he otherwise seemed to be constantly affected by, and that he did not — in fact — “want to die”. Although he went through a rather laborious and thought-intensive process of choosing a way to end his life, he “would wait till the very last moment”, since “life was good…[and] the sun [was] hot”. It was “only human beings” that caused him insufferable torment, and death was the only way to escape. Septimus’s death can be seen as a form of social criticism on the part of Woolf, who also suffered similarly infuriating treatment at the hands of medical institutions during that time period in Britain, whose ongoing battle also ultimately ended in suicide. The doctors in Mrs. Dalloway epitomize the so-called ‘metaphoric death’. To Septimus, “brutes” such as Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bradshaw are representative of “human nature”, which — as a result of his encounters in the first World War — has come to represent malice and ill-will of human beings. It is this human nature, this malice, that causes Septimus to feel metaphorically dead. Whether that be Holmes’s dismissive treatment of Septimus, or Bradshaw’s lazily prescribed ‘medicine’, which is to forcibly separate Septimus from Lucrezia. To him, it is men like Bradshaw and Holmes that “makes life intolerable”. Instead of the metaphoric death of compulsory conformation bestowed upon him by the callous medical institutions at that time, he chose the “defiance” and “embrace” that was death. It correlates with the constant quote of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages”. To Septimus, as well as those who wished to protect the purity of the soul, physical death is comfort and escape, and a much-preferred alternative to the torment that is living whilst enduring a metaphoric demise.
Much like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Cunningham’s film also explored the choice between the acceptance of metaphorical death and physical life, compared to the alternative of metaphorical life in exchange for physical death. Through the use of three interweaving storylines and three female protagonists plagued with doubts and issues that are both ubiquitous yet unique, there was an abundance of death in both the figurative and literal sense. The Hours features death copiously as a theme for the audience to meditate upon, and out of the three characters with mental illnesses (i.e Richard Brown, Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf), two of the three embrace physical death as an alternative, whilst Laura is the only one who chooses another way to still maintain her freedom and ‘life’ (albeit she still decides upon a very drastic course of action). In the final scene with Clarissa (Vaughn), the audience is blindsided by the revelation that Richie was Richard Brown all along, and that Laura Brown is his biological mother. Though Laura initially attempted suicide by employing the use of various drugs, she couldn’t follow through after thinking of the genuine love for her son, and the fragments of romance left between her and her husband (who genuinely seems to care for Laura). However, the societal constraints and responsibilities placed upon a housewife and mother in the 1970s ultimately proved to be suffocating for Laura, and she decided that the only way she could preserve both her allegorical and physical life is to abandon her responsibilities and start anew. She confesses that though “it would be wonderful to say you regret it…it would be easy”, “it [continuing said lifestyle of a stereotypical 1970’s housewife] was death. I chose life”. In this sense, Cunningham also seems to suggest that protecting the purity of the soul and maintaining figurative ‘life’ is much more important than accepting and opting for a metaphoric “death of the soul” caused by oppressive societal obligations and conformation.
There are also portions of the two works (more Mrs. Dalloway than The Hours) that can be described as slightly nihilistic, which provokes the audience to contemplate the longevity, immortality or temporality of life beyond death. From the opening paragraphs, the reader learns that Clarissa (Dalloway) has recently suffered a bout of influenza, which gave her a heightened and “perpetual sense of danger…, that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” Although this fact isn’t raised again for the remainder of the novel, it would be reasonable to assume that her recent brush with death — compounded by her “natural vivaciousness” — resulted in the heightened sensitivity she felt for both the small joys in life, as well as the constant impending threat of death. It is this amplified awareness of death in her surroundings that perhaps led to the thought that “she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her.” There are numerous remarks like this throughout the novel that constantly remind the reader that death must be the irrevocable full stop that brings life to a close. With it, despite how “unbelievable death was…all must end, and no one in the world would know she [Clarissa] had loved…”
The notion that most, if not all things must be forever lost to the annals of time and the reaper’s scythe is both a comfort and a source of distress for the characters in Mrs. Dalloway. For instance, Peter Walsh is an interesting individual in the sense that despite being considerably intellectual, he is still constantly conflicted as to what he should do (or think, for that matter), and is perhaps best characterized by the term ‘ambivalence’. For Peter, death is not so much of a comfort (as it is for Clarissa, as seen in the constant reverberation of Cymbeline in her thoughts), but something to fear. He is afraid he has wasted his life, and cannot commit to taking courses of action (or even a romantic partner, struggling to decide between the intellectually exuberant Clarissa and the more stable Daisy). The imminence and totality of death is something that Peter is unwilling to deal with, or at least give real, meaningful thought to. When he came across a “hoary and immensely aged” woman singing a song of “love…[and] death’s enormous sickle” (which seems to be more of a supernatural symbol for death, age and love than a realistic interaction), instead of giving her his attention and engaging in true communication, he avoids it by simply enveloping his reluctance to engage with the matters of death and life after death with pity, “giving the poor creature a coin as he stepped into his taxi.” Whilst Clarissa takes refuge in the fact that death is an escape from the sobering realities of life, Peter’s overwhelming fear that he has wasted his life prevents him from embracing life and death as two sides of one coin, leading to further inner turmoil and conflict.
In The Hours as well, Richard’s monologue just prior to his defenestration (mirroring Septimus’s death almost identically) also serves to remind the audience how fickle and incomplete mortality is. To Richard, life is just comprised of “hours…and the hours after that.” Ironically, as an author, his work (i.e his award-winning novel) would survive beyond him, but Richard does not hold that fact in high regard. Instead of a fragmented existence where he solely “stayed alive for” Clarissa, he chose death as an all-engulfing embrace that is total and whole, choosing to protect the purity of his soul by shielding it with death, instead of letting the eponymous “hours” chip away at his being one hour at a time.
I believe this is what both the novel and the film culminate to: that despite death rendering all obsolete, life must still go on in spite of it. One of Peter’s most important recollections of Clarissa before marriage was that she had “a transcendental theory…[that] the unseen part of us…might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death”. It is this theory that connects the interweaving plotlines, narratives and seemingly completely unrelated characters into one coherent web, where a vibration on any single strand would then, therefore, lead to a ripple effect on the rest of the threads. In Peter’s case, Clarissa “had influenced him more than any person he had ever known”, and through their long years of turbulent friendship, the so-called ‘radical’ Clarissa of Bourton lived on in Peter’s memories. In Clarissa’s case, despite the fact that Septimus was someone with who she frankly had no real interaction, Septimus’s suicide to her was more martyrdom than tragedy. Through this young man who had seemingly no real connection with Clarissa, she was able to reach an epiphany regarding death: that “death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate…there was an embrace in death”. She is now certain of what the words that she kept reiterating in Cymbeline, and realized that “if it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy.” Although she feels a tinge of regret for not dying in Bourton, for not using the immutable power of death to protect the sanctity of when she was truly at the happiest point in the life, “she did not pity him”, but is instead grateful for Septimus.
Although death is omnipresent, life will — nevertheless — continue on unapologetically. In The Hours, the scene sharply cuts from the shocking scene of Richard’s body hitting the concrete pavement with a sickening crunch to a happy birthday celebration for Laura’s husband. Even though (for the audience, at least) a brilliant individual had just passed away, daily life continues without altering its course in the slightest. Despite the fact that Septimus, someone we (as the reader) had come to understand and appreciate, had just thrown himself out of a window and subsequently impaled himself on a metal pole, Bedford Place and Russell Square still “shone lurid, livid”, and above all, “beautifully.”
Whilst death is the absolute that forever halts the progression of everything, life is the carrying-on that occurs in spite of death. The days; the hours will still pass, and as death envelops more and more, life too will continue as the innermost ‘true’ parts of people like Septimus, Peter, Sally and Clarissa will live on in the souls of others. The party of Clarissa goes on, and “dusky sky” will still “turn…away it’s cheek in beauty”. Both Woolf and Cunningham used masterfully crafted narrative and structural devices to explore the “death of the soul”, and how although death may render life meaningless, the fact that the innermost and purest part of people lives on in others allow for a brief transcension of death. Life may be transient, but it is exactly this type of transience that allows for life to be continually moving, and not an irrevocable conclusion that is both sanctuary and perdition for the soul.
P.S That was probably the messiest essay I’ve ever written, since I was changing my contention with each paragraph I wrote. At least I’ll pass.