Alienation and Consolation in Mrs. Dalloway: What is Clarissa?s Privacy of the Soul?


Mrs. Dalloway
Individuals in the West at the beginning of the twentieth century found themselves trapped. On the one hand, the spread of new ideas allowed for more freedom of thoughts; on the other hand, old social orders held them back from truly living as they chose. That disjunction necessarily entails isolation, alienation and disconnection. Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) expresses those themes through the characters of Clarissa, who experiences a schism between her eventful past and the current everyday life in which she fails to find meaning, between her private self and public role, and between passion and conventionality. Here is a nice review of "Mrs. Dalloway" by a young girl on youtube.

However, the disjunction between inner and outer life allows for a personal space for freedom of thoughts, preservation of the privacy of other people, and the contemplation that makes appreciation of life possible.

Clarissa, full of energy as she is, enjoying buying flowers and breathing that divine vitality of London in June, cannot help immersing in a pervasive disconnection with her social activities. Having enjoyed parties ever since she is young, yet when she gives one she has this feeling of being something not herself, since it has a hollowness and is not in the heart. The socializing in her parties fails to live up to her expectation of meaningful communication and deep understanding, as it does not allow her to be aware of her own self or of anyone.

Having a strong social network, yet merely the knowledge that she is excluded from a dinner invitation makes Clarissa shiver, reminding her that she is getting old and her social influence is dwindling. Her fear is partly the insecurity of one's social place, the loss of people liking her, trusting her, a feeling which she let flow over her and lift her up.

Yet the fear clearly runs deeper than that. At over fifty, she still wishes to have lived her life differently, very dignified, very sincere. Clarissa thinks well of herself as a person, yet the primary disconnection is between her and herself, between Mrs. Richard Dalloway of the present and the Clarissa of the past, the former of which having subjugated the latter. The social self has taken the place of the personal self in a way that Clarissa has not been able to come to terms with.

"Take me with you" Clarissa continuously revisits her unsettled past of thirty years ago, with perfect vividness. While the young Clarissa dreams of changing the world and engages in a quasi-romantic relationship with a female friend, the old Clarissa throws parties, effectively reinforcing the existing social order, and cares nothing about politics, though she evidently wishes she could care more.

Clarissa now does not have the same connection with her husband, Richard, or anyone at all. Her past is unsettling not because of dramatic events but precisely because in her view, it is incompatible with the life she leads now. Her youth represents the passionate, deeply convicted person she could have been as opposed to the worldly woman she chooses to be when she decides to marry Richard.

The middle-aged Clarissa still struggles to choose between her individuality and her social personality she sees the former as a virginity preserved that somehow obstructs the latter, preventing her from fully blending in with people. Desiring true connection, she yearns for something central which permeates, something warm which breaks up surfaces. Her disconnection between inner and outer life stems partly from her resistance to deep intimacy with people. Much as she loves interacting with people and being appreciated, Clarissa is not willing to share too much of her own self. As a sensitive woman, Clarissa understands the distance her privacy can create distance between her and other people. The clash between what she aspires to and what she truly feels deepens her privacy, her isolation.

Yet it is unclear what would be the life Clarissa would choose if she were to go back. Although she cherishes her passionate past, she also disapproves of strong passions. She believes religious zeal makes people lose feelings and consideration for others. That tyrannical passion has the potential to dwarf one's reason and create the distance between people by building up ideas of people that are more than themselves. Passion is part of human nature, and in excess it is everything evil about human nature. Clarissa believes that love, just like religion, clouds people's sober self and destroys truthfulness. The meaning of life that everyone seeks so as to escape the existential void can never be found in religion or love.

The struggle to balance her own life between past and present, passion and conventionality, individuality and social interaction, as well as the effort to define each of those aspects, then, creates an alienation that precludes Clarissa from living fully in the present. Meanwhile, two closest people to her cannot share what she feels, not understanding that her parties are an expression of her love for people and for life, an offering.

Alienation, on the other hand, means to seek life's meaning with authentic moments rather than submit to the security of society's ideals. With her isolation, Clarissa clings to herself as an individual and not merely one of the masses that can be wholly seen through, judged, prescribed. Only because she has her alienation as a prerequisite can she be illuminated to understand that the individual must be preserved, while life must go on. She understands that one's life only holds meaning in interaction with others.

Isolation serves as a space for people to attempt to make sense of and embrace their own self, however contradictory and ambivalent. It keeps oneself in a distance from a society in which judgments are prevalent and one's actions necessarily affect other people. Isolation is also precious because there are moments that can only be truly appreciated in loneliness.

It is Clarissa's sudden strike of desperate unhappiness that she cannot share that moment with anyone else, since to talk about it would mean somehow ruining the feelings and betraying oneself. To share would mean to allow for distraction and violate the raw, real feelings. Only when she is alone can she feel life truly intensely. In the end, Clarissa is able to see that by connecting her private, isolated self with her social self, she can bring goodwill to the world. It is a direct connection between Clarissa and herself, between her and life, an illuminating moment that simply cannot be shared.

Mrs. Dalloway, then, depicts isolation, disconnection and alienation through Clarissa Dalloway's struggle between past and present, passion and conventionality, individuality and society. There is, however, a compensation for that loneliness. It allows one to think for oneself and not submit to society, to communicate with others without violating their personal space, and to feel distinctively life so as to understand and appreciate it. As American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer has once said, Confusing yourself is a way to stay honest.

Written By: Liz Vu, United States (A Vietnamese)

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Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

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