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Mrs. Dalloway's Postwar Elegy: Women, War, and the Art of Mourning

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 9, Number 1, January 2002
pp. 125-163 | 10.1353/mod.2002.0007

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Modernism/Modernity 9.1 (2002) 125-163

In memory of Helen Barbara Froula (1924-2000)
and Louise Bradbury Austin (1904-2001)

[T]he moderns had never written anything one wanted toread about death . . . "and now can never mourn, can nevermourn . . . From the contagion of the world's slow stain" . . .for there are moments when it seems utterly futile . . . simply one doesn't believe, thought Clarissa, any more in God.

--Virginia Woolf, "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street"

Thou thy worldly task hast done, Mrs. Dalloway read. Tears unshed, tears deep, salt, still, stood about her for all deaths & sorrows.

--Woolf, The Hours

When once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of the richs of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.

--Sigmund Freud, "On Transience"

Six weeks after Mrs. Dalloway appeared, its author speculated on "a new name" for her novels: "A new ___ by Virginia Woolf. . . . Elegy?" In modernizing the elegy by adapting its poetics to prose fiction and its work of mourning to postwar London's post-theological cosmos in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Woolf moves beyond what Alex Zwerdling calls her "satiric elegy," Jacob's Room (1922), to discover and explore the genre's full profundity, complexity, and power. This communal elegy unseals "a well of tears"--for the survivors no less than the war dead -- and enters into colloquy with the pastoral elegy from the Greeks through Shakespeare to Shelley in search of consolations for "This late age of the world's experience." In making Clarissa Dalloway its central elegiac consciousness and in transposing certain gender-inflected conventions to feminine registers, furthermore, the novel embraces the terrible losses that the war inflicted on "poor devils, of both sexes" and critiques the warmaking society that Three Guineas (1938) figures as "a father." But what distinguishes Mrs. Dalloway as a war elegy is its discovery of the genre's deep resources for dramatizing and mediating violence both psychic and social: the violence of war and of everyday death; the violence of everyday life; and the violence intrinsic to mourning, the grief-driven rage that threatens to derail the mourner's progress toward acceptance and consolation. In making the elegy a field for confronting the violence that had devastated Europe and still loomed as a threat to its future, Mrs. Dalloway joins the internationalist contributions of Woolf's Bloomsbury contemporaries John Maynard Keynes and Sigmund Freud to postwar debates about Europe's future. Its characters' struggles animate Keynes's prophetic castigation of the Peace as war by other means and anticipate Freud's arguments against class oppression, and for the consolations of science, philosophy, and art over "religious illusion," for a civilization that must manage but can never eradicate the aggression that imperils it from within.

In approaching Mrs. Dalloway as a communal postwar elegy, I rely on Peter Sacks's psychosocial analysis of the classical elegy as a dynamic, eventful working through of loss, fraught with real dangers. Sacks shows how the genre's conventions mediate the mourner's arduous journey from loss, grief, and rage to the renewed life and hope epitomized in the final line of John Milton's "Lycidas," "Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new." Three features stand out in Mrs. Dalloway's exploration of violence. First, with roots in ancient fertility rites, the classical pastoral elegy figures the work of mourning through ceremonies surrounding the death and rebirth of a vegetation god such as Adonis, and its dialectical movement toward consolation (always necessarily symbolic) recalls the funeral games and contests through which a community of mourners negotiates its inheritance from dead father-figures or paternal deities. Mourning, then, has an oedipal dimension as the immediate loss reawakens old crises of loss and brokenness, early wounds to narcissism and sexuality that psychoanalysis figures as castration. To mourn is to relive every loss back to the first loss of the mother and to suffer again the anguish of submitting to the reality principle figured as the law of the father. As we shall see, the accidental death of...

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