'Mrs. Dalloway' and "fragmentation" as a phenomenon marking out modern society
Shedding some light on “fragmentation”
as one major recurrent theme in
Virginia Woolf”s novel Mrs. Dalloway
What this novel seems to be about can best be summarized by a phrase Eugène Ionesco
coined and whose basic approximate sense – I quote from memory – is this:
Man cut off from his spiritual, transcendental roots manifested as such
in tradition, history, religion, cultural heritage gets lost.
His life becomes void of any meaning, absurd, senseless.
The same is true in a way for the gist of the message in Woolf’s novel. The world of Clarissa Dalloway breaks apart. What once formed a unity of sense – society, history, culture – has fallen into pieces and is drifting further and further astray. The single pieces of this (kind of) ‘left-over’ cannot be re-integrated again. The clock can’t be wound back.
Significantly Big Ben looms ominently over all of this, striking the half hours and full hours, thus calling back to Clarissa’s mind that certain things she used to cherish at the bottom of her heart have gone for good, are irretrievably lost. Each 'bang' of Big Ben is like a shock, bringing home to her a new kind of suffering, which should be best called the floundering, Kafka-like topsy-turvy world of the aftermath of the Great War: a time, in which principles, habits, practices, beliefs handed down by generations are irrevocably gone and can by no means be ‘re-institutionlised’. The fin de siècle ending in World War I becomes evident. Formally speaking – i.e. at a first shallow view – Britain has emerged from the War as one of the winners, and yet underneath this facade it had lost an empire standing for a great seafaring nation (> Britannia rule the waves.), world-power maintained by this inexplicable sense of Britishness, of which Clarissa is still such a large part. I think it is those moments at which the clock-tower of Big Ben strikes that it occurs to her to have to accept “defeat” – the loss of the Empire and its beginning transformation into what is to be called Commonwealth can be compared to her own “defeat” in as far as her expectations in terms of love, marriage and friendship have not been fulfilled – to recognize that time changes (> tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis = times change and so do we with them) and we all have got to adjust to this fact bringing forth new perspectives together with a new social and economic environment.
The world reflecting these changes has become a fragmentary one for Clarissa (and most of the other characters in the book as well), through whose eyes, feelings, and vision of the mind we (the readers) can re-experience the dimension of this terrible loss for her/them.
No wonder that in this broken world of tradition, society, and Englishness there is – not just metaphorically – “death” at the end of so many a sentence (in the novel).
Fragmentation means disorientation to Peter Warren, too, who (alike with Clarissa and Septimus) frankly and ‘publicly’ so to speak confesses this “tragedy” not just to himself,
but onto society as a whole (so as to make us his ‘secret sharer’ in the awareness of the loss that ultimately affects us too). It is a healthy world of harmony held together and ruled by British understanding in a God-given and sanctioned mode of righteousness that has vanished and is now so much bewailed by Clarissa and Peter in particular (>their continuous plaintive message re-intensified in so many passages throughout the book).
What are signs/elements/characteristics/features of this fragmentation?
Here just a few instances to help highlight this point:
a) There is an attack on the monarchy by some mysterious shooting
incident right at the start of the novel more or less.
If the British monarchy stands for continuity in unbroken unity of
the British mind and tradition, then this occurrence can be interpreted
as an open assault on the British.
Britons in their majority have always held the view that with the falling
apart of their monarchy or the sovereign stepping down from her/his office
- the monarchy cannot be abolished by an act of parliament as the monarch
is ‘rex Dei gratia’ and therefore ‘above the law’ – the nation will be steering
towards disintegration if not ‘self-destruction’. The shooting act can also be
seen as a vicious lashing out against democracy, against which to stand up
in unity and conformity it is the duty of any true blue English speaking person.
And it is this feeling in the novel that all the characters share when hearing
of this outrageous, barbarian act.
b) The breaking up of the English society as one side-effect of the Great War
is another such ‘sign’ of the overall theme of fragmentation.
The old class-divided society is no longer what it used to be.
In the good old days each social class contributed to the specific values
of this society within its framework so as to sustain it.
Now after the War these classes begin to intermingle.
There are no distinct features of each individual class any more.
Functions that were once class restricted, thus expressing the specific
pride of such a class, are now being exchanged (and swapped for
each other), with the result that people begin to mistrust each other,
that their feeling of togetherness in spite of all differences ‘in class’ goes lost.
(We live in a society of transition – which is what the readers are made
to feel.) There is a loss of confidence in this society (and its order of values).
The nation is in an identity crisis itself. It is about to re-shape itself, yet to
what extent and what purpose ultimately? This question is part of the
‘open ending’ of the novel.
c) The book teems with names of persons. These names are constantly
interchanged, shifted about so that you (the reader) never know
where you really are at a certain point of time and what these names
stand for/are meant to tell you. The persons in this novel have become
disconnected, too. The old relationships no longer work. It is Clarissa’s
desperate attempt to save and stick together what has collapsed/broken
apart. It is the reminiscences of her childhood and youth, a world
which prospered for her in those days in so many respects, Clarissa
traces and longs back for. Yet in vain does she try to be a saviour of
what has evaporated for good. And yet she cannot part with her past.
This is her dilemma. There is no new beginning for her in this formless
world of the aftermath of the War. It is the age of modernism
(already discernible) that dispels in ridicule any conventionality.
d) The stream of consciousness technique is a deliberately chosen
device to help underline the lostness of man in this modern world.
With tradition vanishing fast, Woolf obviously couldn’t use the
conventional form of a novel - i.e. its customary structure, logically
consistent line of arguments, chronologically arranged plot, etc –
any more to emphasize her point. It is the new technique used by
her that makes the novel so difficult to read. The novel thus becomes
a mirror of this world (and its people): almost incomprehensible, at least
very hard to understand. Thus it is not dialogues clearly marked,
nor is it a clear cut plot that casts light upon the reflections of the single
characters, their relations to each other, but rather a spasmodically
arranged sequence of interior monologues (fragmentary in themselves
and largely disconnected or loosely stitched together by paragraphs) revealing
thoughts, verbal descriptions, emotions/feelings of characters who very
frequently can only belatedly be identified by the (puzzled) reader.
Thus a world of fragmentation, a topsy-turvy world of a mess, a
turmoil is created and left behind in the mind or even soul of the reader.
No catharsis takes place in/through this novel – neither for the reader
nor the characters themselves. What remains is disillusionment,
disbelief, pessimism and a foreboding of “death”. The reader becomes
one with the despaired characters (at least of Clarissa, Peter, Septimus
and some others): the only ‘unit’ (not ‘unity’) left or rather achieved
by the end of this literary piece of art.
My tutor’s comment:
Well-done. I agree with your point that the novel marks the loss of the old verities, that the world – and its meaning – has gotten jumbled, is breaking apart. I wonder to what extent this breakdown is allowed to invade the text however, outside of style. The characters don’t seem to notice in many ways that the world has changed. They go on about their business, feeling a vague sense of loss which they can’t exactly name.