- Life After Death:The Allegorical Progress of Mrs. Dalloway
When we read novels, when we produce "readings" of novels, we are performing an activity practiced in other ways in our daily lives: we are selecting details of our experience and ordering them so as to make sense, seeking shape and meaning in each narrative. Frank Kermode has remarked on the tendency to impose form temporally, and its implications are familiar in deconstructionist discussions of "story" and "discourse" (see for example Culler). When we do this with a work of literature, the closed system of the text may afford us the satisfaction of an adequate reading, an allegoresis that accounts for most or all of the details the words provide; more usually, with realist works in particular, we are left with the extraneous materials our own lives provide, characters, utterances, perhaps, possible within but not contained by the terms of our interpretation.
To Virginia Woolf, the familiar process of making sense, however coherent or enchanting the narratives produced, has disturbing potential. In Mrs. Dalloway she offers us a text that I see as operating in an anti-allegorical way. By this I mean that while the structure of the narrative invites the reader to seek a hidden story indicated by surface details, the "message" discovered on that level frustrates the allegorical expectation: it instructs us to avoid such generalizing [End Page 279] and return to the particular. In Clarissa Dalloway Woolf presents us with a character who has half-consciously produced a reading of herself as dead; in the domineering Sir William Bradshaw, one whose readings of other people's lives can kill. Only in exploring details and denying the rigidity of categories, whether allegorical or psychiatric, can Clarissa—or the reader—find life.
In the following discussion I place Clarissa Dalloway's self-surrendering revival of the dead in relation to the "present" narrative of Mrs. Dalloway, the day in which she moves from envelopment in the dead past to a commitment to life. My argument is that this movement from Clarissa's sense of herself as an image to a more particular responsiveness has a parallel in the reader's own passage through and beyond allegorical activity. The narrative of Mrs. Dalloway invites us to make allusive connections that seem as engagingly communal as Clarissa's culminating party; as E. M. Forster reminds us in Howards End, connection establishes understanding, communication, sympathy. But the making of connections can also be dangerous. Sir William Bradshaw's darker goddess, Conversion, has her birth in the desire to connect everything up, to impose similarity and to iron out difference, "adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace" (Mrs. Dalloway 151).1 Reading Mrs. Dalloway we confront the positive and negative implications of our desire to make sense through connection. In particular, Woolf's movement between and presentation of the thoughts of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith compel us to contemplate our own literary strategies for giving life to the dead.
J. Hillis Miller views Woolf's narrative in Mrs. Dalloway as primarily concerned with reviving the past, giving life to dead shadows "as once in May," according to the Strauss song about All Souls' Day he finds entwined in the narrative surrounding the song of the old woman at the Tube station (190).2 Miller describes the narrative technique of the novel as merging Mrs. Dalloway's day and the events of her youth through the undifferentiated past tense: "The 'was' shimmers momentarily between the narrator's past and Clarissa's past" (187). My focus on the reader's part in the process of repetition Miller sees as a narrative regeneration emphasizes the danger Woolf recognizes in too easy an assumption of community.
The "story" Miller descries in the novel is a tale that is told, the story of how Clarissa Parry rejected Peter Walsh in favor of [End Page 280] Richard Dalloway in the Bourton of her youth (188). When she evokes her plunge into Bourton, her love for Sally Seton and her argument with Peter, Clarissa implicitly cedes to these remote events her own present, "this moment of June" which is later...