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  • The Sane Woman in the Attic:Sexuality and Self-Authorship in Mrs. Dalloway

Oddly enough, she [Clarissa] was one of the most thoroughgoing sceptics he [Peter] had ever met, and possibly . . . she said to herself, As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship . . . let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners; decorate the dungeon with flowers and air cushions . . . and so she evolved this atheist's religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.

—Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

She could see what she lacked . . . something central which permeated; something warm . . . Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed.

—Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other. But . . . when Evans was killed . . . the panic was on [Septimus]—that he could not feel.

—Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway [End Page 34]

In its ambivalent portrayal of its heroine's marriage, Mrs. Dalloway participates in a modern trend in British and European social thought that combines antifoundational forebodings with pragmatic-conservative solutions. Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents both expose the absence of a foundation (natural or god-given), where a foundation would give comfort, but hold out civilization—a product of human artifice—as a surrogate refuge.1 Conrad's Marlow analyzes threats internal to a civilized society and individual. Bitterly aware of the hypocrisies on which the "whited sepulchre's" contract is founded, Marlow nonetheless holds fast to the "saving illusion" of civilization's decency, lest he become another Kurtz (Conrad 9, 77)—or Septimus Smith. Clarissa, for her part, holds fast to her union with Richard, though hardly unaware of his limitations, of Sally's and Peter's corresponding appeals, and her attraction to them. Civilization and Its Discontents, which postdates Mrs. Dalloway by five years, asserts that civilization exacts neurosis as a price of membership. Freud accepts neuroses, rather like Marlow accepts disingenuousness, as a necessary and fair price.

The antifoundationalism Mrs. Dalloway shares with these other philosophical texts shows in its treatments of marriage and sexuality. Clarissa's love for Peter and memory of Sally's kiss explode any notion of female desire being monogamous and heterosexual, of marriage and its attendant obligations being "naturally" suited to women—the very prejudices that helped Woolf's Victorian forebears justify the sexes' separate matrimonial spheres on supposedly firm philosophical foundations. In part, Mrs. Dalloway also shares the pragmatic conservatism of these two texts, evincing support not only for the Dalloway marriage, but also for Clarissa's traditionally feminine role within it—the marriage's lack of foundational support notwithstanding. But only in part. Woolf's elusive, protean tone slips, almost imperceptibly, from sympathy to judgment, even to satire. In its less sanguine passages, the novel suggests that Clarissa's marriage (and its mirror, Septimus's) has been a self-betrayal. Ultimately, neither judgment of the Dalloway marriage—and thus neither general thematic suggestion about marriage itself—wins Mrs. Dalloway's full support. Rather, the novel's moral energy tugs in competing directions, toward two compelling but irreconcilable judgments of Clarissa's exclusive partnership forged in the face of competing loves for Peter and Sally. Mrs. Dalloway effectively dramatizes the insoluble challenges posed to its contemporary readers by the broad social transformation—which I term the "crisis of intimacy"—through which they lived.

According to the pragmatic reading, the potential threats to the legitimacy and stability of the Dalloway union (Sally and Peter) ultimately [End Page 35] redound to its credit. Unlike Sally's love—a passing phase of late-adolescent lesbian enthusiasm—Richard's lasts, albeit in its feebler, clumsier way. Unlike Peter's love, Richard's is not oppressive. It provides Clarissa with space, both physically (a room and ominously narrow bed of her own) and psychically (in which to work through her problems, to live a private life). Far from a "dungeon" (77)—the privacy of its attic room notwithstanding—Clarissa's household can always be decorated with flowers; it is where her "atheist...

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