Mrs. Dalloway (novel-1925) and
The New Dress (short story-1927)
by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Core beliefs are one of the foundations of the continuous narration that scrolls, rarely with a break, through our minds. These beliefs are translated into the illusion that most of us “believe” is our reality. If these beliefs are predominately negative, as they were in the mind of Virginia Woolf, suffering can be extreme, relentless and in her case fatal.
As is true of all fiction writers, the two stories examined in this essay, a novel and a short story, reveal the content of her neurotic mind, her beliefs, attitudes and values, which, in turn, reveal her self-image, her self-hatred. Her identity or her interior conversation about who she thought she was found their way onto the pages of these two works of fiction, which were indeed fiction and doubly untrue because they were Virginia Woolf’s false self.
In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf introduces two characters, each intuitively seeking an escape from their suffering, in that they “both want desperately to bring order out of life’s chaos [and both have] a passionate desire for wholeness.”[i] The story is a projection of the author’s own struggle for meaning and in the novel “Virginia Woolf suggests provocative ideas about the nature and meaning of life, love, time and death.”[ii] Most of us know at some level of our awareness that there is another narrative possible for us.
We are all, however, apt to make poor choices when young due to the influence of the false-self survival strategy and the relatively weak influence of our intuitive wisdom. Mrs. Dalloway chooses wealth (security) and status (power) in rejecting her first fiancé, Peter Walsh to marry Richard Dalloway. When Peter returns years later her stream of consciousness reveals deep insights into the mesmerizing and self-destructive power of P-B. “Now, seeing Peter for the first time in many years, her belief in her motives and her peace of mind are gone. Engaged in preparations for a party, she knows her life is frivolous, her need for excitement neurotic, and her love dead.”[iii]
Power has also corrupted the character Doris Kilman who is a tutor and friend to Mrs. Dalloway’s daughter Elizabeth. Doris is “an embittered, frustrated spinster whose religious fanaticism causes her to resent all the things she could not have or be. With a lucid mind and intense spirit, largely given to deep hatred of English society, she represents a caricature of a perversion of womanly love and affection.”[iv] We can recognize this as a classic projection of a very dark shadow and a futile attempt to escape a tortuous paradigm.
In projecting her self-loathing onto her characters, Woolf foreshadows her tragic suicide. In her short story The New Dress, she revealed that her sad narrative apparently began to occupy her mind when she was a child. “And at once the misery which she always tried to hide, the profound dissatisfaction—the sense she had had, ever since she was a child, of being inferior to other people—set upon her, relentlessly, remorselessly, with an intensity which she could not beat off.”[v]
The mirror that reflected Woolf’s own projected unflattering image tended to distort the image of others in the same way. If she could not love herself, how could she approve of the other loathsome creatures that inhabited her personal environment? “Rose Shaw looked foolish and self-conscious, and simpered like a schoolgirl and slouched across the room, positively slinking, as if she were a beaten mongrel.”[vi]
One casualty of identifying with the narrative of P-B, as seen through the mind and grounded in emotion, as opposed to P-A grounded in the heart, is the loss of compassion. “Ah, it was tragic, this greed, this clamour of human beings, like a row of cormorants, barking and flapping their wings for sympathy—it was tragic, could one have felt it and not merely pretended to feel it!”[vii] The reference here is to the security- and sensation-seeking centers of the false self, the pursuit of money and titillating distractions; always ending in disillusionment.
The sensation center (the pursuit of pleasure) and the quest for power both proved to be equally dead ends for Woolf and her characters. “For all her dreams of living in India, married to some hero like Sir Henry Lawrence, some empire builder (still the sight of a native in a turban filled her with romance), she had failed utterly.”[viii]
Even in the darkest stories of the human mind the truth of the underlying narrative of Simple Reality will find an opening and we will experience a peak experience, a breakthrough into the present moment: “divine moments, when she said to herself (for she would never say this to anybody else), ‘This is it. This has happened. This is it!’ Then in the midst of this creeping, crawling life, suddenly she was on the crest of a wave.”[ix]
Apparently Woolf had no way of knowing that the “divine moments” were an alternative and authentic reality that was possible for her if she could have only found a way to choose it. Sadly, this was not to be.
As it is in each of our stories, “The real action of the story is all within the minds of the characters and Woolf gives these inner lives a reality and harmony that reveals the excitement and oneness of human existence.”[x] In Mrs. Dalloway the reality of the human community is revealed in that we are all interconnected and interwoven into the fabric of Oneness, the larger human narrative in ways that we have yet to acknowledge. The wholeness and oneness that author and critic Frank Magill speaks of in Masterpieces of World Literature is a far cry from the much more profound insight of Oneness that forms the foundation of Simple Reality. Mrs. Dalloway and her creator Virginia Woolf realized this too late to create a fulfilling life and most of us are doing the same thing in the Global Village today.
We can bandy about high-sounding words like wholeness and oneness but in a P-B context they are anything but wholesome and definitely do not promote oneness. If we want to know where we are as a human community, and who we are, we can look to our writers of fiction and find the same regrettable gruesome experience expressed by Virginia Woolf’s characters.
Be aware of and wary of the P-B “story.”
[i] Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 545.
[ii] Ibid., page 542.
[v] Cahill, Susan [ed.]. Women and Fiction. New York: New American Library, 1975, page 51.
[vi] Ibid., page 54.
[vii] Ibid., page 56.
[ix] Ibid., page 57.
[x] Magill, op. cit., page 545.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.