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Twentieth Century Fiction
Prof. Avishek Parui
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Madras
Lecture - 37
Mrs. Dalloway - Part 8
(Refer Slide Time: 00:12)
So, hello and welcome to this NPTEL course entitled Twentieth Century Fiction. We were looking at Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. So, this will be the second last lecture on this novel after which we will finish this formally.
So, we were looking at this section, we just finished studying particular passage last time where we looked at how this shell-shocked soldier Septimus Warren Smith is advised by his doctor that he must be forced to rest. And the whole combination of coercion and confinement and rest cure is something which is obviously, suffered by Septimus quite terribly and that obviously, informs his existential alienation the fact that he is misunderstood, and also he is confined against his own will. And that also poses some very important questions about the role of agency, right.
So, the sufferer or the patient has very little agency in the hands of the doctors, who essentially decide for him, who essentially formulate for him, who essentially you know decide what is best for him at the point of time. So, there is no real empathy at play over here. There is some sympathy and there is a lot of patronizing and condescending gaze which obviously, you know accentuates the suffering of the patient over here.
So, we see the section over here, where Septimus is obviously in that kind of a medical space where he is almost confined and how that informs his trauma, how that informs his alienation, and how that actually sends some triggers, traumatic triggers which you know make him worse, make him significantly worse than what he is normally. So, this should be on your screen.
Going and coming, beckoning, signalling, so the light and shadow which now made the wall grey, now the bananas bright yellow, now made the Strand grey, now made the omnibuses bright yellow, seemed to Septimus Warren Smith lying on the sofa in the sitting-room; watching the watery gold glow and fade with the astonishing sensibility of some live creature on the roses, on the wall-paper.
So, again there is a very cinematic quality about the visual image over here. So, going and coming, beckoning, signalling very automated movements, and we have seen how in modernism the relationship between automatisms and human senses, it is very complex. Automatism is something which informs the human sensory programs, in the sense that the way we consume stimulus becomes quite automatic in quality, right. So, whole idea of coming, going, beckoning, signalling and the omnibuses coming and going on the road becomes a massive cinema show for Septimus which is obviously visually consumed by him.
Outside the trees dragged their leaves like nets through the depths of the air; the sound of water was in the room and through the waves came the voices of birds singing. Every power poured its treasures on his head, and his hand lay there on the back of the sofa, as he had seen his hand lie when he was bathing, floating, on the top of the waves, while far away on shore he heard the dogs barking and barking far away. Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more.
So, we have a sense of cognitive dissonance over here, right. So, there is complete break from reality and the different kinds of cognitive registers at place. So, he is transported back in time, he is transported back to the memories of this war which obviously, makes its presence felt even in this post-war situation and different kinds of signifiers combined, and this is how the traumatic trigger operates. He sees certain things, he hears certain things and those experiences trigger, certain memories in him, memories of the war. So, he just sits there like a very numbed organism consuming all kinds of stimulus around him.
He was not afraid. At every moment nature signified by some laughing hint like that gold spot which went round the wall – there, there, there - her determination to show, by brandishing her plumes, shaking her tresses, flinging her mantle this way and that, beautifully, always beautifully, and standing close up to breathe through her hallowed hands Shakespeare’s words, her meanings.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:53)
So, Shakespeare becomes marker of meaning over here, Shakespeare becomes the marker of high meaning, high existential meanings. So, we saw even before when Septimus went to fight in a war he went to protect the land of Shakespeare. So, Shakespeare becomes the signifier of culture, meaning almost metaphysical quality of meaning and that is something which is used and evoked over and over again by Septimus.
Rezia, sitting at the table twisting a hat in her hands, watched him; saw him smiling. He was happy then. But she could not bear to see him smiling. It was not marriage; it was not being one’s husband to look strange like that, always to be starting, laughing, sitting hour after hour silent, or clutching her and telling her to write. The table drawer was full of those writings; about war; about Shakespeare; about great discoveries; how there is no death.
So, again this is the first time in the novel where we talk about, where we get a glimpse of Septimus’s writings. Now, obviously as you can see these are writings which are disparaged by the medical practitioners, the doctors, both Holmes and Bradshaw, they look at the writing as some kind of a morbid you know over-introspective exercise, something which is definitely discouraged by them.
Whereas, when you see the entirety of Freudian psychoanalysis was an entirely you know he was advising patients to convert the trauma into an experience into a narrative in some form. So, give it some kind of tangible shape, through a narrative shape, through a narrative design. In contrast to which we have Holmes and Bradshaw who are the preFreudian materialist medical philosophers or medical practitioners who say and this should be on your screen, both Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw said excitement was the worst thing for him.
So, again the whole idea of excitement being something bad. So, being emotional is still seen as something which is anathema to healthy existence, you know not being excited is a good thing. So, they obviously, they are colluding together to make him as unexcited, non-excited as possible; so, excitement being a bad thing medically speaking at that point of time, ok.
So, lately he had been excited suddenly for no reason, and waved his hand and cried out that he knew the truth. He knew everything. That man, his friend who was killed, Evans, had come, he said. He was singing behind the screen. She wrote it down just as he spoke it. Some things were very beautiful; others sheer nonsense. And he was always stopping in the middle, changing his mind; wanted to add something; hearing something new; listening with his hand up. But she heard nothing.
So, again we have a complete crisis of communication over here and collapse of communication if you will. And if you remember, the line from Fire Sermon in the Wasteland where again we have this conversation or the lack of conversation between a married couple, genteel married couple where we are told repeatedly there is no communication at all. This could be failure and collapse of any communicative register, ok.
Now, over here we find that Septimus goes on a rambling spree, he mentions different things randomly - different references come up in his narrative and from you know
Rezia’s perspective, this almost sounds like a mad man’s rant. And the question of Evans comes up, or reference to Evans comes up. So, we have talked about how Evans as a character, who is a bit of a spectral ghostly presence in this particular story, he does not appear, except as a dead man in Septimus’s imagination. But we already see instances of how there are very suggestive hints, where, Evans and Septimus seem to have had some type of relationship which may have spilled over into something homoerotic in quality and we see that reference coming over and over again.
But the more important thing over here is Septimus appears as a mad prophet, someone who knows everything, knows the truth for the matter. He is a mad seer of truth. But of course, no one would believe him, no one would take him seriously because he is a madman and he is traumatized by his experiences.
So, you have this very interesting equation, made between trauma and wisdom, between trauma and insight. So, only you can only have insight in condition like this, if you experience trauma, right. So, trauma becomes something which informs inside rather than something which takes away meaning. It actually adds to meaning, and that is the only true meaning with which you can look at life, right. So, that becomes a very interesting equation over here, ok.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:17)
And once they found the girl who did the room reading one of those papers and fits of laughter. It was a dreadful pity. For that made Septimus cry out about human cruelty - how they tear each other to pieces. The fallen, he said, they tear to pieces. “Holmes is on us,” he would say, and he would invent stories about Holmes; Holmes eating porridge; Holmes reading Shakespeare - making him roar with laughter or rage, for Dr. Holmes seemed to stand for something horrible for him. “Human nature,” he called him. And there were then there were the visions.
He was drowned, he used to say, and lying on a cliff with the gulls screaming over him. He would look over the side of the edge of the sofa down into the sea. Or he was hearing music. Really it was only a barrel organ or some man crying in the street. But “Lovely” he used to cry, and the tears would run down his cheeks, which was to her the most dreadful thing of all, to see a man like Septimus, who had fought, who was brave, crying, ok.
Now, there are different things which need to be unpacked over here. So, Holmes becomes obviously, the opposite of happiness, the anathema to happiness. Holmes is something who was a tyrant over here, he is a medical tyrant, was a bit of a medical fascist for the matter who wants to control and coerce and confine Septimus and take him away from his free will, take him away from what he wants to do. So, whenever he feels traumatized whenever he feels put upon he always evokes the image of Holmes in his mind, Holmes is on us, Holmes is something who is chasing us down breathing down our neck for the matter.
Holmes is reading Shakespeare, Holmes is eating porridge. So, Holmes becomes this marker for mercilessness in this particular section, right. And then of course, we hear different things later, we also get to see that Septimus cries often, you know cries out of joy, cries of you know trauma, etcetera and from Rezia’s perspective it is very almost impossible to see Septimus cry because Septimus to her becomes the epitome of manliness, military manliness and to see him reduced to a figure who is sobbing, who is crying something which is almost unbearable for Rezia.
In case, it is this question of emasculation as well. So, we have different kinds of equations over here; trauma, wisdom, insight, emasculation, guilt all put together and that makes Septimus’s character such a complex character to look at, ok, right.
And he would lie listening until suddenly he would cry that he was falling down, down into the flames. So, you know we have this very interesting post-traumatic stress disorder images over here. He imagines himself falling into a flame, imagines himself being burned to death etcetera, right.
Actually, she would look for flames, it was so vivid. But there was nothing. They were alone in the room. It was a dream, she would tell him and so quiet him at last, but sometimes she was frightened too. She sighed as she sat sewing, right. So, he has all these traumatic visions at night, he has this traumatic triggers at night, he would wake up, he would picture himself drowning, he would picture himself, you know being chased by someone and then she would have to tell him that this is his dream, but you know and then go back to sleep.
But we are told that Septimus’s recollections over here, Septimus’s triggers over here, are so vivid, so visceral in quality that was it almost you know very real for Rezia as well. And who was also scared despite not dreaming those herself, ok. (Refer Slide Time: 11:30)
Her sigh was tender and enchanting, like the wind outside a wood in the evening. Now, she put down her scissors; now she turned to take something from the table. A little stir, a little crinkling, a little tapping built up somewhere something on the table there, where she start sewing. Through his eyelashes he could see the blurred outline; her little black body; her face and hands; her turning movements at the table, as she took up a reel, or looked (she was apt to lose things) for her silk. She was making a hat for Mrs. Filmer’s married daughter, whose name was - he had forgotten her name.
Now suddenly we have a reversal of gaze. So, it like took a look at Rezia over here from Septimus’s perspective. So, we have different kind of focal points in this narrative as we have mentioned already which makes it almost postmodern in quality despite being a sort of temporary historically speaking modernist novel because we have all this interlinked, hyperlinked narratives where the focal points or focal characters changed quite quickly and quite dramatically. Then suddenly we see Rezia being looked at, Septimus looking at her from a certain perspective, right. So, and we get to know what she was doing, ok.
“What is the name of Mrs. Filmer’s married daughter?” he asked.
“Mrs. Peters,” said Rezia. She was afraid it was too small, she said, holding it over here, holding it before her. Mrs. Peter’s was a big woman; but she did not like her. It was only because Mrs. Filmer had been so good to them. “She gave me grapes this morning,” she said - that Rezia wanted to do something to show that they were grateful. She had come into the room one of the other evening and found Mrs. Peters, who thought they were out, playing the gramophone.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:08)
“Was it true?” he asked. And she was playing the gramophone? Yes; she had told him about it at the time; she had found Mrs. Peters playing the gramophone.
He began, very cautiously, to open his eyes, to see whether a gramophone was really there. But real things - real things were too exciting. He must be cautious. So, again the whole idea of looking at real things becomes exciting for him and obviously, he has been advised he has been you know almost coerced into thinking that excitement is bad for him, right. So, he wants to avoid excitement at all cost. But real things, real things are too exciting. He must be cautious, he would not go mad.
First he looked at the fashion papers on the lower shelf, then, suddenly and gradually at the gramophone with the green trumpet. Nothing could be more exact. And so, gathering courage, he looked at the sideboard; the plate of bananas; the engraving of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort; at the mantelpiece, with a jar of roses. Nothing of these none of these things moved. All were still; all were real.
So, we have different markers of wealth, different markers of prestige in this room, the gramophone, we have a you know a picture of the queen, there is the whole idea of this very bourgeois genteel setting is spread out over here and you know we are also told that all these things were real, all were real.
“She is a woman with a spiteful tongue,” said Rezia.
“What does Mr. Peters do?” Septimus asked.
“Ah,” said Rezia, trying to remember. She thought Mrs. Filmer had said that he travelled for some company. “Just now he is in Hull,” she said, ok. So, now, we have this idea of this travelling man as well. So, we have different kinds of male models over here. So, and interestingly we find most of the able-bodied men in this novel are absent from the narrative, they are just mentioned, they are third person presences, they are talked about, they are mentioned, but not really there when you know the characterization takes place, ok.
(Refer Slide Time: 14:58)
Now, then we see this very interesting example of a traumatic trigger in Septimus, you know he sees something perfectly innocuous and that triggers him into believing something which he thought he had forgotten.
He started up in terror. What did he see? The plate of bananas on the sideboard. Nobody was there. The banana was a very a common fruit over here, in this confined, in this rest cure method, people were fed bananas against their will because bananas are supposed to help you put on weight and Virginia Woolf herself were, was fed banana for the longest time when she suffered this confinement cure as a child, as someone who was a young woman.
He started up in terror. What did he see? The plate of bananas on the sideboard. Nobody was there, Rezia had taken the child to its mother. It was bedtime. That was it; to be alone forever. That was the doom pronounced in Milan when he came to the room and saw them cutting out buckram shapes with their scissors; to be alone forever.
So, that obviously, accentuates the alienation suffered by Septimus who experiences the alienation that he suffers medically, culturally, socially, politically as well, right. So, all these become very the snowball into this idea being completely cut off from the reality around him, ok.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:07)
He was alone with the sideboard and the bananas. He was alone, exposed on this bleak eminence, stretched out - but not on a hill-top; not on a crag; on Mrs. Filmer’s sittingroom sofa. As for the visions, the faces, the voices of the dead, what were they? Where were they? There was a screen in front of him, with black bulrushes and blue swallows. Where he had once seen mountains, where he had seen faces, where he had seen beauty, there was a screen, right. So, the whole of idea of screen becomes important because that obviously, flags up the cinematic quality the visual consumption over here.
“Evans” he cried. There was no answer. A mouse had squeaked, or a rustle or a curtain rustled. Those were the voices of the dead. The screen, the coalscuttle, the sideboard reminded to him, remained to him. Let him then face the screen, the coal-scuttle and the sideboard, but Rezia burst in the room chattering.
Some letter had come. Everybody’s plans were changed. Mrs. Filmer would not be able to go to Brighton after all. There was no time to let Mrs. Williams know, and he and really Rezia thought it very, very annoying, when she caught sight of the hat and thought… perhaps… she… might just make a little… Her voice died out in contented melody.
(Refer Slide Time: 17:18)
“Ah, damn” she cried. It was a joke of theirs, her swearing, the needle had broken. Hat, child, Brighton, needle. She built it up; first one thing, then the other, she built it up, sewing. So, this breaking of the needle becomes a very symbolic and it becomes part of the Sisyphean existence of Rezia, you know what a Sisyphean existence is, the myth of Sisyphus is someone whose is cursed, who is doomed to push a stone up a hill and obviously, the moment it reaches the top of the hill the stone is going to roll over and fall again and he has to do it, ad infinitum until the end of eternity, ok. So, there is a degree of Sisyphean existence about these characters as well, ok.
She wanted him to say whether we are moving the rose she had improved the hat. She sat on the boat on the end of the sofa, right. So, she is making hat and she is putting a rose in it and she wants Septimus’s approval because approval comes from sense of engagement, from a sense of empathy, you engage with something through an empathic process and then you approve it, or disapprove it for the matter, ok.
They were perfectly happy now, she said, suddenly putting the hat down. For she could say anything to him now. She could say whatever came into her head. That was the, there was the most almost the first thing she felt about him, that night in the cafe when he had come in with his English friends. He had come by, rather shyly, looking round him, and his hat had fallen when he hung it up. Then that that could she could remember.
She knew he was English, though not one of the large Englishmen her sister admired, for he was always thin; but he had a beautiful fresh colour; and with and his big nose, bright eyes, his way of sitting a little hunched made her think, she had often told him of a young hawk, that first evening when she saw him, when they were playing dominoes, then he had come in - of a young hawk; but with the with her he was always very gentle.
So, the hawk metaphor is important because the hawk is traditionally the bird predator, right. So, the hawk is a predatory bird someone who you know something which you know preys on other smaller birds and other small organisms as fish for that matter. So, the hawk metaphor is obviously in connection to a virile military masculinity, it is wild in quality; it is very epitome of maleness and hunter, the hunter male, right. Now, we see the transition over here very quickly.
(Refer Slide Time: 19:28)
But we also told with her he was very always very gentle. She had never seen him wild or drunk, only suffering sometimes through this terrible war, and even so, but even so when she came in, she would put it all away. Anything, anything in the whole world, any little bother with her work, anything that struck her to say that she would tell him, and he understood at once. Her own family even were not the same. Being older than she was being so clever - how serious he was, wanting her to read Shakespeare before she could even grasp with a little child’s story in English – being so much more experienced, he could help her. And she too could help him.
So, we have this moment of optimism in the story when Rezia realizes that despite everything Septimus is a lovely man, Septimus is very qualitatively rich man and he can help her in a way that she can help him. So, they can live in a mutually helpful relationship.
But this hat now. And then it was getting late Sir William Bradshaw and then Sir William Bradshaw. She held her hands to her head, waiting, for him to say did he like the hat or not, and as she sat there, waiting, looking down, he could feel her mind, like a bird, falling from branch to branch, and always frightening, always alighting sorry quite rightly.
He could follow her mind, as she sat there in one of those loose tax poxes you know poses that came to her naturally and, if he should say anything, at once she smiled, like a bird alighting with all it is claws firm upon the bough. So, again the bird image becomes important, you know the bird obviously is equated with Rezia over here, and this is the hawk equated with you know Septimus Smith.
But he remembered Bradshaw and said, “The people we are most fond of are not good for us when we are ill.” Bradshaw said, he must be taught to rest. Bradshaw said he must be separated.
So, again the whole idea of emotional apathy becomes important because Bradshaw’s cure for Septimus apparently is to separate him from his wife and that obviously and that is supposedly the reason the way in which he can be cured.
(Refer Slide Time: 21:20)
So, we could see the absurdity of the entire medical exercise. We can see the coercive quality of this entire medical exercise at play, and the word must is of course picked up over here by Septimus. “Must,” “must,” why “must”? What power had Bradshaw over him? What right has Bradshaw to say ‘must’ to me?” he demanded.
So, again this brings a very complicated questions about the doctor patient relationship and how the agency becomes very problematic category in that relationship, right. If the doctor tells you to do something, you do not normally have the agency to say no, because doctor is doing it for your betterment of your body, right. So, the entire system becomes dependent on the doctor, right. So, Septimus wonders why Bradshaw uses the word must so many times, a sense of you know imperious quality is there very much so in a way he practices medicine, ok.
“So, it is because you are talking of killing yourself,” said Rezia, mercifully she could now say anything to Septimus. So, we are asked to be separated because you are thinking of committing suicide and the doctor thinks me staying with you might aggravate your condition. Again, the doctor says being the operative phrase over here.
So, he was in the power, Holmes and Bradshaw were on him. The brutal the brute with the red nostrils was sniffing into every secret place. “Must” it could say. Where were his papers? In the things that he had written? So, you know the whole idea of you know being away from family, being away from every loved ones becomes important over here. Because Holmes and Bradshaw, they represent a loveless-ness of the landscape, it is a very loveless landscape. So, Septimus suffers some other things from loveless-ness, right, enhances entire morbid introspection and narcissism, ok.
She brought him his papers, the thing he had he had written, things she had written for him. She felt a tumble down out onto the march on to the sofa. They looked at them together, looked at them together. Diagrams, designs, little men and women brandishing sticks for arms, with wings - were they? - on their backs, circles traced round shillings and sixpences - the suns and stars; zigzagging precipices with mountaineers ascending roped together; like knives and forks; sea pieces with little faces bursting out of what might perhaps be waves; the map of the world.
So, the whole idea look at the way in which these connections are made. So, everything ends up in the map of the world. So, from something very local it moves on to something very philosophical and macro in quality.
Burn them, he cried. Now, for his writings; some of the dead sing behind rhododendron house, the rhododendron bushes; odes to time; conversations with Shakespeare; Evans, Evans, Evans - his messages from the dead; do not cut down the trees; tell the Prime Minister. Universal love; the meaning of the world. Burn them, he cried.
So, this is what we call in a very famously the stream of consciousness technique where one meaning takes up different meanings, where one meaning moves on to another meaning which may or may not have a relationship between them at all, right. So, this entire lack of dependence of meaning is something which is important for us to say over here that you know in a world where language is taken away he might as well have been burned to death, ok. So, that becomes an important message over here.
(Refer Slide Time: 24:23)
But Rezia had laid her hands on him. Some were very beautiful, she thought. She would tie them up, for she had no envelope with a piece of with a piece of silk. Even if they took him, she said, she would go with him. They could not separate them against their wills, she said.
So, if you remember Septimus and Rezia were told, that Septimus is taken away to Mrs. to Dr. Bradshaw’s you know Dr. Bradshaw’s chamber in a countryside that would be obviously be a part of the confinement method, ok. So, and the husband and the wife would be forced to stay separately, they will not be allowed to come in together because that was supposed to create too much excitement which is bad for the nerves of the patients according to these doctors, ok.
Shuffling the edges straight, she did up the papers, and tied the parcel almost without noting, almost without looking, sitting beside him, he thought, as if all her petals were about her. She was a flowering tree; and through her branches looked over the face of a lawgiver, who had reached a sanctuary where she feared no one. No one except not Holmes; not Bradshaw; a miracle, a triumph, the last and greatest.
Staggering he saw the saw her mount the appalling staircase, laden with you know laden with Holmes and Bradshaw, men who never weighed less than eleven stone six, who sent their wives to the Court, men who made ten thousand a year and talked of proportion; who made it who different in different articles in different in their verdicts and for Holmes said one thing, Bradshaw another, yet judges they were; who mixed the vision and the skateboard she saw nothing clear, and yet ruled, yet inflicted, “Must” they said. Over them she triumphed.
Now, over here what is important for us to see is how the collective is more important than the individual, right. So, the collective over here happens to be Holmes and Bradshaw and obviously, they have a much more coercive technique compared to the individual, right. So, the coercion is important for us to understand. So, the word must comes back again, the word must is an indication of the coercion, indication of the terrorism, the force that the medical practitioners are imposing on him.
“There,” she said. The papers are tied up. No one should get at them. She would put them away, right. So, the writing of Septimus becomes important and this is something which we see in great details over here. So, the writing becomes the only activity in which any exercise of agency can be operated, can be operated can be offered. So, if the writing goes away you know that takes away the agency as well. So, you know there she said the papers were tied up, no one should get at them, she would put them away. And she said nothing should separate them. She sat down beside him, and called him by the name of the hawk or crow which being malicious and a great destroyer of crops was precisely like him. No one could separate them, she said.