The Darkness Within by Michael Bowen

In the novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf writes about a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa has to prepare for a party she is throwing later in the day, and Woolf shows the entire process that goes into effect throughout the entire day. However, as the novel goes on, it is easy to see the other characters in Clarissa’s life and the darkness that envelopes all of them. The reader will meet a man who came back from the war and loses the will to live. The reader also meets a man from Clarissa’s past who cannot find his true love.  Woolf uses the characters from the novel to show the darkness she feels in her own life. Her feelings manifest through the characters in the novel.

Virginia Woolf’s life was nothing short of traumatic. Early in her life her mother, her half sister, and her father died, and she ended up taking it so hard, she was institutionalized. As if that was not bad enough, all throughout her early life her brother, George Duckworth, sexually abused her. After the institutionalization, it seemed very clear Woolf was a very emotionally unstable woman. Woolf was known to have nervous breakdowns due to traumatic experiences in her life. After countless rough moments in her life, and multiple mental breakdowns, Woolf lost the will to live and drowned herself in her home. People have speculated that Woolf’s desire for suicide may have manifested through her characters in her writings. A major character with suicidal tendencies in Mrs. Dalloway was Septimus Smith.

Septimus Smith, a former soldier in the war, was married to Rezia Smith. After the loss of his good friend Evans, Septimus began to rethink the point of living. He would tell Rezia about his desire to stop living and he hinted at suicide. The odd thing about Septimus is that he is not a huge part of the novel. In fact, it is fairly easy to forget about him as new characters become introduced. After the death of Evans, Septimus began to have a nervous breakdown and developed Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, or PTSD. It was taken very lightly, and therefore the way doctors would have patients deal with their “illness” was to get plenty of rest.

…when a man comes into your room and says he is Christ (a common delusion), and has a message, as they mostly have, and threatens, as they often do, to kill himself, you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months’ rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve. (Woolf 97)

In this passage, Septimus is ordered to take some time off by resting without the presence of any other people. He was ordered to be alone, which seems like a horrible idea for a suicidal man. If a man had PTSD and suicidal tendencies, what kind of a doctor would order this man to live alone for a while? The loneliness would drive him even crazier giving him better reason to end his life. Rezia also knew about Septimus being disturbed. Rezia heard Septimus say things that made her cringe. “People, she thought, looking at the crowd staring at the motor car; the English people, with their children and their horses and their clothes, which she admired in a way; but they were “people” now, because Septimus had said, “I will kill myself”; an awful thing to say” (Woolf 15). It was at this point Septimus grew tired of his life and he was ready to die. Clarissa finds herself able to understand what Septimus is going through when he ends up committing suicide. “But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away” (Woolf 182). She was almost able to see herself in his shoes. It was as if she almost envied him for what he had done. The introduction to Sally Seton and Pete Walsh also added to the manifestation of Woolf’s feelings. While Septimus Smith covers the suicidal aspect of Woolf, Peter Walsh helps to cover the confused side of Woolf.

Peter Walsh was the kind of man who had great trouble finding the one he loved. He had fallen in love with Clarissa in the past, but he could never have her. Since Clarissa would not reciprocate Peter’s love, it seemed he had to settle for a woman. He decided on a woman who was already married, but he decided to bring her back to London so he could get their divorce finalized. The question of whether or not Pete actually loved Daisy arose. In the novel, Woolf hints at the fact that he is unhappily married to the woman who he may not love “[a]nd Peter Walsh had gone off to India, and she had heard vaguely that he had made an unhappy marriage, and she didn’t know whether he had any children, and she couldn’t ask him, for he had changed” (Woolf 183).  It seemed he felt he had to have a woman in his life or he would be dubbed a failure in the eyes of people everywhere. He met Daisy and he liked her, but was it love? This can be linked to the confusion in Woolf’s life pertaining to whether or not she actually loved the man she was with. Virginia had fallen in love with a man named Roger Fry, however so did her sister. Her sister began having a secret affair behind her back hoping that Virginia would never find out. It turns out that Virginia did indeed find out and she was devastated. It seems that since she could not have Fry, she settled on marrying Leonard Woolf. One of the main reasons she decided to marry Leonard was because of the relationship between Fry and her sister. Also, Woolf saw herself as a failure because she was unmarried and did not have any children. It seems as if she panicked and decided that she could deal with being married to Leonard Woolf and destroy those feelings of failure. However, there is evidence that Woolf had  bisexual affairs.  This evidence is where Sally Seton comes into play.

Sally Seton was the kind of girl who did not fit the normality of women’s lifestyle at the time. She was a smoker and a free spirit who did not care what people thought of her. Seton enjoyed doing things that most people would not imagine women at the time doing “[f]or in those days she was completely reckless; did the most idiotic things out of bravado; bicycled round the parapet on the terrace; smoked cigars. Absurd, she was—very absurd” (Woolf 33). Clarissa would watch Sally be the kind of girl that Dalloway knew she could never be. They were total opposites, but Clarissa admired her more than any other woman. “But this question of love (she thought, putting her coat away), this falling in love with women . . .  Had not that, after all been love?” (Woolf 32). Clarissa desired to be with her in an almost romantic sense. While reading, one would get the thought that Clarissa longed to have a friendship that turned into a romantic lifestyle with Seton. The feelings Clarissa had for Sally might have manifested from the romantic period Virginia Woolf had with a woman named Vita Sackville-West. Lesbianism was very taboo back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One could get the impression that Woolf longed to be with Vita, but since it was very much frowned upon in society, she decided to settle for Leonard Woolf.

Mrs. Dalloway is a novel that raises many questions. It asks a lot about Virginia Woolf, not only as a writer, but as a human being. What was Woolf going through at the time of this novel? How unhappy was she with her life, her loves, and the people around her? One could argue that Mrs. Dalloway is the way Woolf manifested all of the inner thoughts and feelings she was having at the time via a man who was unhappy with his life, began going insane, and ultimately committed suicide. All of the things wrong with Woolf throughout her life: A woman who longed for a romantic relationship with another woman, which describes the relationship between Woolf and Sackville-West,  and a man who was unhappy with feelings of failure so he settled on a woman who he thought he loved which is exactly like the “failed” life of Virginia Woolf, driving her to marry Leonard Woolf. During the novel, the reader learns a great deal about many different people, when in reality, they are ultimately learning about one person: Virginia Woolf.


Works Cited

“Virginia Woolf : Biography.” Spartacus Educational – Home Page. Web. 13 Feb. 2011. <>.

“Vita Sackville-West : Biography.” Spartacus Educational – Home Page. Web. 13 Feb. 2011. <>.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2005. Print.