“…The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he [Septimus] kill himself for their sakes? …Besides, now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about to die are alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know.”
-Virginia, Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Early on in Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness narrative flows over to Septimus Warren Smith and his wife, Rezia, whiling away the afternoon in Regent’s Park, London. They are together, but they’re undeniably separate and alone with their thoughts and impressions. In the way they relate to the sights and sounds of the park, and in the way they think about them, Woolf shows us who these two characters are in this moment, so different, on this beautiful mid-June day in the city.
Rezia is very much battling with the troubles of the real world. Her primary concern happens to be Septimus, and everything she experiences in the park relates to his troubles. In this time, she recalls memories, relates to London’s history and literature, and observes the actions of the other people in the park. Rezia tries to get Septimus to look around him and engage in this real world. She recalls the safety and comfort of her home in Italy, and she questions her decision to come to England with Septimus. At one point, she speculates she’d be better off if Septimus was dead. She relates the loneliness and darkness she feels to the Thames valley when the Romans arrived to conquer it. (This is also a reference to the excerpt from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness we read in class.) Rezia even sees the other people in the park, sees children playing and responds to Maisie Johnson’s request for directions to the Tube. But in these observations and interactions, she is most concerned that others will notice the queer state her husband is in. Hers is a London of Septimus’s breakdown and the disintegration of their relationship.
Septimus is lost in his own world, in “an isolation of sublimity.” Everything he sees and hears relates back to himself, his inner fantasies. He recognizes the beauty in the sky, the air-writing airplane, but he believes the message is only for him. He hears the nursemaid spelling out the letters, but he believes her voice is quickening the trees. The trees are connected to his body by fibres. Septimus has lost touch with Rezia’s real world, and he feels alone and abandoned. He nearly ignores the people in the park, only focusing on the natural beauty and the way it provokes his imagination. Septimus’s dead war-buddy, Evans, lurks at the edge of his vision, the edge of his mind. He is a man contemplating the end of life, considering suicide. The epigraph above is taken from later in the book, but it sufficiently summarizes Septimus’s state of mind. He feels he is at the end of his life, but he hasn’t yet decided how his actual death will come, by his own hand or not. Septimus’s London serves solely as a catalyst for his own inner fantasies, a city filled with too many people and not enough peace.
Septimus’s dislocation in Regent’s Park is the cumulative result of trauma caused by World War I and the emotional paralysis that followed. Virginia Woolf makes an explicit connection between herself and Septimus when she writes that the war veteran hears sparrows singing “freshly and piercingly in Greek words.” After her first suicide attempt in 1904, Woolf claims to have imagined hearing birds sing in Greek. One academic study even claims the very “modernist narrative of Woolf’s novel brilliantly mirrors the mind of a trauma survivor like Septimus.” According to one introduction of the novel, in 1923, a total of 16,771 soldiers were still hospitalized with “shattered nerves and around 50,000 neurasthenic and other types of war pensioner [were] at large in Britain.” Septimus was very much a man of the times in London.
Septimus’s flights of fancy are expertly written by Woolf, and they allow the author an opportunity to play loose and fast with the traditional rules of description and narrative. She writes that, in Septimus’s mind, Rezia’s command for him to “Look!” turns into a flight of associations that leads from life to death, from the Lord to a snow blanket. Elsewhere, a child’s cry and a horn sounding together mean “the birth of a new religion.” These passages sometimes strain the sense of the scene almost to the point of incoherence. But, Woolf seems always able to hold the thing together at the last moment. Also, Woolf’s use of repetition is masterful, nearly inciting a religious response to some of the lines. Rezia’s commands to “Look!” are hypnotic and heart-breaking, nearly an elegy.
Woolf uses London to signify the differing perceptions of her characters, marks the change of place by means of the changing scenes of London, and signals the movement of time with the chiming of Big Ben. This particular scene, with Septimus and Rezia, depicts London as a bustling, vibrant city, with all the glamor of a royal sighting and a skywriting airplane. The openness of the park lends itself to Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style, allowing the narrative eye to float across the sky and into the minds of the different characters enjoying the open space. Different classes and different backgrounds collide in the democratic park. There, a nursemaid talks to a hat-maker who shouts directions at a visitor from Edinborough. Later, a relatively main character turns into Septimus’s dead war comrade in Septimus’s mind. Woolf uses the environment of the park as something to which Septimus and Rezia can respond, an oasis in the modern city with the capability to both alienate and inspire awe, a very vividly-particular backdrop for the moves and doings of her actors.