The first time my sister Haley received an invitation for a sleepover, it was to her best friend Martha’s house. Such an invitation is exciting and a celebrated first experience away from home. However, Martha lived in a mortuary. Her father was a mortician, whose residence was attached to his place of work and business. This fact intrigued Haley, for who else could say that their best friend lived in a house that had an embalming room or could claim to have played hide and seek in the coffins? Certainly nobody in our immediate family held those same privileges, however morbid. Haley was excited to spend the night with her friend. Once she had packed, she went off to the mortuary for her first sleepover. However, the phone rang later that evening. Haley spoke tearfully on the other end, explaining that she wanted to come home. Upon arrival home, she confessed that she had been too afraid to sleep there with all of the dead people in the house. She had in fact seen one as the result of a prank by an older brother. It took a few more years for Haley to brave another sleepover, and whether or not she ever stayed at Martha’s is unclear to me now.
Death is frightening. We are all born with a death sentence, as modernist poet Dylan Thomas writes: “The force that through the green fuse drives the / flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer” (658). Yet we live as though we will never die. Recently in my neighborhood, two relatively young people died within a week of each other. Their departures have caused me to contemplate my own mortality. I can’t help but realize that the people I love will not always be alive or part of my life. I can’t help but think that when I’m a grandparent, my in-laws will no longer be around for my daughters. This knowledge, though not new, is somewhat shocking. However, I find that one can deal with all universal truths and shocks through literature. And one way that literature treats death is in its power to change us.
In Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, death connects people who would not normally mingle and therefore changes Clarissa, the title character. She is an upper class woman who throws meaningless parties. Clarissa also hates the lower classes. She describes, her daughter’s tutor, Miss Kilman, as “satisfying” and “real” (265). “Ah, how she hated her―hot, hypocritical, corrupt” (265-66). Clarissa feels unfairly criticized by Miss Kilman, who “laughed at her very unjustly, for her parties” (183). Do these two women sound familiar? We certainly have classes in our country, but even among those who are like us we sometimes tend to compare and compete.
However, death equalizes these women and causes Clarissa to change. During Clarissa’s party, she gets word of Septimus Smith’s suicide. “Oh! Thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death” (279). She tries to physically flee the idea, going into different rooms, where “[t]here was nobody” (279). Additionally, “The party’s splendor fell to the floor, so strange it was to come alone in her finery” (280). Clarissa suddenly realizes the unimportance and even the perversity of her celebration. She sees the hypocrisy in continuing the party when somebody has died, even when that person is of a lower class.
As Clarissa thinks this over, the circumstances of the death, a suicide, change her views. It causes her to realize that despite her privileges, she would also die. She thinks of her friends and how all of them will grow old. She then sees that “[t]here was an embrace in death” (281). She recognizes the passion and sorrow that Septimus must have had in order to kill himself, and she also feels terror in death (281). It is as if she recognizes that she is no better than Septimus, a veteran of World War I, because death will eventually come for her as well.
She has an epiphany, looks critically at herself, and changes. Death causes her to be ashamed of the snobbery that has directed her entire life. The day of buying flowers and planning the party is supremely distasteful to her once she realizes that death will eventually come for her, just as it has come for Septimus.
Now, Mrs. Dalloway is not a novel that everyone will enjoy. It’s modernist, it’s vague, it’s slow, and it’s dense. However, I found that I enjoyed the movie The Hours, which is based on a 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner by Michael Cunningham. This book is worth reading and the movie is worth seeing. The book/movie uses the plot of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and contemporizes it. It also weaves Virginia’s Woolf’s life and suicide into the story. In the movie, Meryl Streep is fabulous, as always, in her portrayal of Clarissa. Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her role as Virginia Woolf. So, unless you’re serious about literature, I say skip Mrs. Dalloway and read and/or watch The Hours. It connects three women’s lives through death.
Hopefully, we will let death change us for the better, as Clarissa did. I experienced this when a beloved neighbor of mine died last year. He was an elderly gentleman who had spent his entire life serving and loving others. I felt such love and kindness from him in the short time that I knew him, and after attending his funeral, I resolved to be a better person. I resolved to be a better mother and to love others more fully and more regularly. Death causes us to contemplate our own mortality and therefore our own morality, as it did with Clarissa. Additionally, the example of someone who has died can serve as a reminder of who we should be so that when we die, others will mourn our loss.
Thomas, Dylan. “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Volume 6: The Twentieth Century and Beyond. Ed. Joseph Black. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2006. 658-59.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: The Modern Library, 1928.
While The Hours is a great movie, I have to disagree with your recommendation of watching the movie instead. Of course, that might have something to do with my own love of books…. 🙂 but I thought the book, The Hours, was a sad imitation of Woolf’s genius. It was no where near as amazing or as poetic. The movie does manage to capture some of the magic of Mrs. Dalloway (I can’t get this to italicize for some reason) but I would say watch the movie and then give the book a shot. You’ll never regret that you did.
You’re right! The book is better, but I just don’t think it’s for everybody. I have to admit it was tough for me to get through, but once I did I was glad that I had stuck with it. Have you read To the Lighthouse? That’s one I want to read but haven’t yet.
This is an apt post considering I am currently immersed in reading Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary and have followed her through the writing of Mrs. Dalloway and beyond.
She really was completely surrounded by death her entire life. Not only losing her mother early on, but losing her brother, Thoby, was devastating to her. (If you’ve not read Jacob’s Room, I highly recommend it — it is a modern prose elegy for Thoby).Some critics believe she never really recovered from this loss, and then as the years rolled by many of her family and friends were taken in their prime. She had recurrent thoughts of death and deep depression. All of this comes through so poignantly in her diary.
You’ve made me want to pick up Mrs. Dalloway again (its been years), so thank you for that. Also, I used to have a copy of The Hours, but gave it away unread and I never saw the film. Perhaps after rereading Woolf, I will give them both a look.
Great post — I love the way you tied in the theme of death, mortality, and morality in the novel to your own contemporary experience.
I haven’t read A Writer’s Diary, but now I will! I absolutely adore Virginia Woolf, although I must admit her fiction writing is tough for me to read. I feel as if I’ve accomplished something great when I finish a novel of hers. A Room of One’s Own is my favorite of her non-fiction.