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London as setting for “Mrs. Dalloway”

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”When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” –Samuel Johnson

In “Mrs. Dalloway”, Virginia Woolf uses the setting of the city of London to effectively show the vastly different emotional responses of the characters. The city of London, in June, is the primary location in which three of the novel’s characters are placed; although they inhabit the same period of time, they display completely different responses. The protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, enjoys the experience from her position of privilege and comfort. Septimus Warren Smith, by contrast, is being swallowed up by the city since he is in the depths of shell-shocked depression; he contemplates suicide because he cannot cope with life as he perceives it in London. Peter Walsh, who has recently returned to London after an absence of five years, is surrendering himself to the sights, sounds, and general atmosphere of the city in a casual light-hearted manner as one does who is unburdened by the cares of life. Woolf uses the city of London as a catalyst and focal point of these characters’ lives, which all intersect, directly or indirectly, at the end of the day at Clarissa’s party.

The busy streets of London on a fresh June morning provide the perfect setting for Clarissa Dalloway’s free-flowing thoughts as she sets off to buy the flowers for her party. Clarissa is so seduced by her surroundings, the traffic, the people all engaged in their own pursuits, that she allows her thoughts to flow freely over her experiences during her youth spent at Bourton. London is a comfortable place for Clarissa, and she simply ”loves walking in London”(6), as she declares to her old friend, Hugh Whitbread. Her life of comfort and privilege affords her the luxury to simply revel in her journey through London’s streets while she contemplates preparations for her party. Indeed, to Clarissa, the ”divine vitality” (7) of the streets of London is so euphoric that her experience occurs on a purely superficial level. She is unaffected by the mysterious grey car with its ”air of inscrutable reserve” (17) that is the subject of speculation by all who see it. The skywriting plane is also attracting attention throughout London, yet Clarissa never even looks up.

By contrast, Septimus Smith’s responses to the setting of London’s streets are totally different from Clarissa’s. He has returned from the war, is being treated for shell shock, and is caught in a downward spiral of depression. In his fragile mental condition, Septimus is afraid, incoherent, and threatened by his surroundings. The grey car that so fascinates the people on the street and is barely acknowledged by Clarissa, is seen as a threat to Septimus; he sees it as a representation of himself obstructing traffic, and is terrified by his interpretation of the pattern on its curtains as ”the gradual drawing together of everything to one center before his eyes” (16). Clearly, Septimus’s psychosis has finally isolated him from reality as he no longer sees normal things in the same way as the other citizens on the streets.

Yet a different set of responses is evoked in Peter Walsh as he finds himself on the same streets of London. He is more interested in ”the state of he world” (7) than in the physical trappings of the city. As he walks towards Regent’s Park, Peter wonders about the mechanics and gasoline consumption of the cars; he surmises about the lives of the young soldiers marching past him and is reminded of his own age. Peter Walsh’s brief moment of melancholia is quickly replaced by ”exquisite delight” (57) at the liberation of his mind to feel young again. The atmosphere induces Peter to act in a carefree manner by following a young lady through the streets and fantasizing about an encounter with her in his anonymous identity of ”you”. Peter’s self-absorption and immaturity are evident in this type of behaviour.

While London’s streets are busy, crowded, and hectic, the setting of Regent’s Park is just another path to a destination for Clarissa. However, it is a place fraught with threat and persecution for Septimus, and a pleasant interlude for Peter. Clarissa seems unaffected by the serenity of the park, except for a cursory acknowledgement of ”the silence; the mist; the hum; the slow-swimming happy ducks; the pouched birds waddling” (5). She is more interested in the social encounter with her old friend, Hugh Whitbread, and what he may think of her and the hat she is wearing. Hugh’s presence in the park reminds her of happier times at Bourton where they spent considerable time together on the lawns and gardens.

Conversely, Septimus finds himself in this same peaceful setting, yet he is tormented by his interpretation of the ordinary activities of the people in the park. As the injured, shell-shocked war veteran, he contemplates suicide while drifting in and out of lucidity as he is caught in a downward spiral of depression. The normal, everyday life in Regent’s Park feeds his psychosis to the point where he sees everything as a threat to him. Septimus experiences hallucinations of trees being alive and connected to him ”by millions of fibres” (24); birds singing to him in Greek; a dog turning into a man; promises of beauty from the smoke of the sky-writing plan, and ultimately, Peter Walsh seeming to take the form of Septimus’ friend, Evans, who was killed in the war. Despite the intervention of his wife and doctors, Septimus is unable to bear life as he perceives it; he is swallowed up by London, and eventually commits suicide.

In as much as Clarissa and Peter are similar in personality, are in tune with each other’s thoughts, and share so much of their youthful memories and experiences, Peter’s time in Regent’s Park has a very different effect on him than Clarissa’s experience in Regent’s Park. The idyllic setting provides a perfect foil for him. He is completely seduced by the tranquility; he smokes a cigar and is lulled into a state of total relaxation, eventually falling asleep. His dreams are of a solitary traveler wandering through a forest, which is symbolic of his life. Peter is in a state of total relaxation, and simply savours all that Regent’s Park offers. Also, we his life crossing that of Septimus’ again when he witnesses the dispute between Septimus and his wife, Lucrezia.

London’s famous landmark, Big Ben, adds yet another dimension to the setting chosen by Woolf. The three characters, Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter are connected in time and setting by the sound of Big Ben. Clarissa is aware of time passing only as a reminder of her approaching party; Septimus ignores the hours marked as he is now out of time, and Peter is continuing to waste time as he has always done. The chimes of this clock mark time for the characters in Mrs. Dalloway for very different reasons. Clarissa is aware of ”the leaden circles [dissolving] in the air” (4) simply as a reminder of time passing until her party around which her day revolves. Although the ”leaden circles” are heard all over London, Septimus is oblivious to the sound or even to the significance of the chimes. Peter, meanwhile, is also reminded of the party simply by the association to Big Ben’s chimes to Clarissa’s parting words to him ”Remember my party” (52) as he leaves her house after his visit that morning.

Throughout this eventual day in London, the lives of Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith, and Peter Walsh intersect in the streets, the parks, and the sounds of the city. Clarissa starts her walk thinking ”[w]hat a lark! What a Plunge” (3) this experience is, whereas Septimus ”[flings] himself vigorously, violently” (164) to his death at the end of the day. Peter Walsh casually meanders through London and is directly linked to Clarissa by his attendance at her party. Septimus’ indirect presence at the party is noticeable by the impact his suicide has on Clarissa. Woolf has employed a stream of consciousness technique to articulate the thoughts and feelings of these three characters by taking us inside their minds while placing them in a common setting.

We almost see and hear their thoughts and responses and clearly understand how the human condition varies from one character to the next. Although the setting of London is constant, we see each of the characters responding to his or her own life experiences. Virginia Woolf uses the city of London with its streets, parks, and sounds as a means of unifying the plot in Mrs. Dalloway by intersecting the lives of Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter throughout the day. As the threads of their lives are woven in and out of a common environment, we see a rich tapestry of life in London from the point of view of these three disparate characters.

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