Essay: Defying Gender in Mrs Dalloway

Happy Publication Birthday, Mrs Dalloway! First published on this day, May 14th, in 1925 by the Woolfs’ publishing house, Hogarth Press; this new Penguin Vintage Classics edition has the most beautifully abstract cover and you can click to buy it (as I’m about to) here!

gender in mrs dalloway

In her 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf defies contemporary expectations of gender with an unfearing portrayal of homosexual relationships, especially between Clarissa and Sally and Septimus and Evans. The publication of sexologist Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion in 1897, whilst suggesting for the first time in Victorian medical study that homosexual behaviour was the ‘manifestation of an instinct which to [those] persons who possess it frequently appears natural and normal’[1], underscored the actuality that ‘in a country like England […] all our traditions and all our moral ideals, as well as the law, are energetically opposed to every manifestation of homosexual passion’[2]. Ellis notes the existence of a ‘compact social force which on every side constrains the individual into the paths of heterosexual love’[3], and this study will analyse how Woolf shapes, explores and strays from those pathways through Clarissa and Septimus’s same-sex interactions, their interruptions by the opposite sex, and the presence – or absence – of parenthood, as well as charting the effect changing feminist ideologies may have had on the 1925 novel, from the relative erasure of lesbianism and femininity in early studies of homosexuality to ‘post-First World War antifeminism’[4] with the ‘laud[ing] of motherhood’[5] in the 1920s.

Firstly, Woolf characterises Clarissa’s ‘relation in the old days with Sally Seton’[6] by defeminising her role in the relationship: in ‘yielding to the charm of a woman’ (p.28), Clarissa ‘did undoubtedly then feel what men felt’ (p.28). Woolf’s use of ‘chivalry’ (p.30) to describe ‘this protective feeling which was much more on her side than Sally’s’ (p.30) is marked by its association with medieval knighthood, a gendered term idealising the courteous behaviour of a man towards a woman. Whilst agreeing with Charlotte Hjersing that the existence of ‘a quality which could only exist between women’ (p.30) is perhaps Woolf’s suggestion that ‘a strictly feminine relationship is more desirable’[7], this sentiment is framed by Clarissa’s ‘chivalry’ and an assertion that ‘it was not like one’s feeling for a man’ (p.30). One interprets that Clarissa’s ‘falling in love with women’ (p.29) is not like one’s feelings for a man because they are the feelings of a man, and thus framing the feminine ‘quality’ of Clarissa’s ‘relation’ with Sally with her adoption of a masculine role in it contest Hjersing’s reading. Instead, it suggests that the challenge to gender stereotypes here is not in the desirability of a ‘strictly feminine relationship’, but the desirability of assuming a masculine role to protect them from the ‘catastrophe’ (p.30) of heterosexual ‘marriage’ (p.30) by mimicking it.

Furthermore, in Sexual Inversion, Ellis typifies ‘the inverted woman’ as having ‘a more or less distinct trace of masculinity [… which] may in the least degree consist only in the fact that she makes advances to the woman to whom she is attracted and treats all men in a cool, direct manner’[8]. Through her unidentified ‘illness’ (p.27), Clarissa exemplifies this: characterised as a ‘cold spirit’ (p.28) through which she has ‘failed’ (p.28) Richard, she feels she has failed to fulfil her traditional female role as a sexual partner by ‘sleep[ing] undisturbed’ (p.27), a thought which triggers her stream of consciousness to regress to thoughts of Sally – ‘something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman’ (p.28) – where what she ‘lacked’ (p.28) is fulfilled. As such, Woolf’s decision to not identify the illness allows a reader to interpret it as homosexuality: her coldness towards men, particularly her being ‘so calm’ and ‘cold […] as an icicle’ (p.74) towards Peter being ‘what tortured’ (p.74) him, is only ‘warm[ed]’ by her ‘love’ (p.29) for Sally, and, in turn, her adoption of a more masculine gender role.

Comparatively, Septimus’s interaction with Evans does not propel him towards fulfilment in the opposing gender role; rather, Woolf likens their ‘affection’ (p.80) to ‘a case of two dogs playing on a hearth rug’ (p.80), revoking their capacity for gender identification. However, the contrasting pace of this passage, dictated first by the swift, sharp sounds of their ‘snarling, snapping, giving a pinch’ (p.80), and slowed by the elongated vowels of ‘raising a paw, turning, and growling good-temperedly’ (p.80), evokes a shift from the vigorous ‘quarrel[s]’ (p.80) of ‘friendship’ (p.80) to the slow sensuality of, as J. E. Kennard observes, the ‘homoerotic if not homosexual’[9]. The homoerotic implications are furthered by Woolf’s elaboration that the men ‘had to be together, share with each other’ (p.80), with Kennard noting that ‘the word “share” […] was used in this period as term to describe homosexual relations between men’[10], an insight entirely informed by its use by E. M. Forster in Maurice, but nevertheless supported by the aural sensuality of the preceding lines. Thus, whilst Septimus’s same-sex interaction with Evans does not challenge the masculinity of his gender role in the same way that Clarissa’s relationship with Sally contests her femininity, his implicit homosexual behaviour, although without the candidness with which Sally ‘kissed [Clarissa] on the lips’ (p.31), does, in posing a challenge to his heterosexuality.

Woolf uses interruption as an opposition to homosexuality, as Clarissa and Septimus’s interrupters, Peter and Rezia, are of the opposite sex, anrepresent that ‘compact social force which on every side constrains the individual into the paths of heterosexual love’[11]. As Peter interrupts Clarissa’s ‘moment of happiness’ (p.32) ‘alone with Sally’ (p.31) in the idyllic Bourton past, Clarissa feels ‘his hostility; his jealousy; his determination to break into their companionship’ (p.32), and the passage that follows is the reassertion of masculinity in its stereotypical gender: Peter’s ‘words […] started up every day of her life as if he guarded her’ (p.32), making Clarissa the object of protection, not the one compelled to be ‘protective’ (p.30), as she had been with Sally. Septimus is similarly ‘interrupted again’ (p.21) by the ‘always interrupting’ (p.21) Rezia, not only from thoughts of Evans, but of ‘the dead’ (p.21). As the symbol of his path to heterosexual love, his wife’s interjections function not only subliminally, to force his thought away from homosexual desire, but consciously as an attempt to save him from what jeopardises his masculinity – suicide – as ‘it was cowardly for a man to say he would kill himself’ (p.20), which is poignantly and painfully embodied in Holmes’s reaction to his eventual death: ‘the coward!’ (p.140).

Yet, Clarissa is doubly interrupted by Peter, both in her Bourton past and, like Septimus, in the present time governed by ‘Big Ben[‘s] strikes’ (p.2). Yet, in contrast to Septimus, who ‘must get away from people’ (p.21) following Rezia’s interruptions, Woolf arms Clarissa with a weapon, ‘her needle’ (p.39), against Peter’s ‘horn-handled knife’ (p.39). These gendered symbols, the needle associated with the feminine ‘dress’ Clarissa is ‘mending’ (p.37), and the popular reading amongst many critics of the knife’s ‘phallic nature […] links Walsh with the idea of masculinity’[12], actually serve to reverse their connotations in the characters who wield them. Clarissa’s needle is ‘tak[en] up’ (p.39) as she prepares to arm herself ‘like a Queen whose guards have fallen asleep and left her unprotected’ (p.40), ‘summon[ing] all to come about her and beat off the enemy’ (p.40). Woolf’s employment of military imagery removes the needle from its feminine sphere of domesticity and implements it, and Clarissa, in the masculine sphere of ‘battle’ (p.40). Conversely, Peter’s call to arms, ‘running his finger along the blade of his knife’ (p.42), incites in him ‘those uncontrollable forces’ (p.42), and he ‘burst[s] into tears’ (p.42), whilst Clarissa remains ‘at […] ease’ (p.42). Hjersing argues that ‘gender roles in society [embodied in] the image of rational men and emotional women’[13] are questioned by the characters of Clarissa and Septimus, but as the interaction between Clarissa and Peter demonstrates, Woolf’s dismantling of gender stereotypes is much more all-encompassing.

Whilst Septimus does ‘cry’ (p.131) – and it is ‘the most dreadful thing of all, to see a man like Septimus, who had fought, who was brave, crying’ (p.132) – as Peter and the ‘emotional women’ do, the overwhelming effect of his exposure to the spheres of battle and war, albeit literal and not figurative like Clarissa’s is sterilisation: emotionally, creatively and physically. Emotionally, Woolf repeatedly states that Septimus ‘could not feel’ (twice on p.80, twice on p.81), and at Evan’s death, ‘far from showing any emotion’ (p.80), he ‘congratulated himself on feeling very little and very reasonably’ (p.80), and feels propelled to conform to what ‘the war had taught him’ (p.80) to do and fulfil the ‘rational man’ stereotype. Furthermore, Septimus’s creativity, shown in  his ‘writings’ (p.138), is stunted by war; his ‘crie[s]’ (p.138) for Rezia to ‘burn them!’ (p.138) a sorrowful reflection on a man who initially ‘went to France to save an England’ rich in creativity, ‘consist[ing] almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays’ (p.79).

However, Septimus’s most significant sterilisation following the war is physical. Again utilising a Shakespearean motif, Woolf asserts that to Septimus, ‘the business of copulation was filth’ (p.82), as ‘love between man and woman was repulsive to Shakespeare’ (p.82). This not only drives Septimus away from the stereotypical ‘imperative nature of men’s sexual urges’[14], but also challenges Rezia’s role as a woman both ‘conscript[ed …] into the active servicing of male sexuality’[15], and one who ‘could not grow old and have no children’ (p.83). Set and published in the early-to-mid 1920s, the publication and circulation of Mrs Dalloway likely coincided with what Sheila Jeffreys summarises as a ‘new form of feminism, promoted by the sexologists, and adopted in the 1920s [that advocated the] glorification of motherhood’[16]. Rezia’s desperate desire – ‘she must have children’ (p.82) – is dampened by Septimus’s and, supposedly, Shakespeare’s shared disgust of ‘love between [a] man and woman’ (p.82), and ultimately leads to her failure to fulfil a maternal role. Therefore, contemporarily, Woolf challenged the changing feminist ideals of womanhood with a childless woman, and, once again, Septimus’s response is sterile: ‘he felt nothing’ (p.84).

However, in a final contrast between the portrayal of Clarissa and Septimus, Woolf threatens to undercut the challenge Clarissa poses to an early nineteenth-century feminine stereotype. Clarissa’s final defence in her war against Peter is her motherhood, as Peter’s questioning – ‘are you happy, Clarissa? Does Richard –’ (p.43) – is interrupted by the entrance of Clarissa’s daughter, Elizabeth. Clarissa, in opposition to Septimus, ‘emotionally’ (p.43) affirms her maternity: ‘here is my Elizabeth’ (p.43). This is Clarissa’s ultimate conformity to her gender role, illustrative of the ‘British movement in the 1920s [… that] exalted motherhood at the expense of other feminist concerns’[17]; namely her ability to battle Peter in his own masculine sphere, and her homosexuality, concealed by Elizabeth, the symbol of Clarissa’s heterosexual path as a product of her marriage to Richard.

While Woolf does challenge the ideal early nineteenth-century feminine and masculine identities in Mrs Dalloway through the portrayal of Clarissa and Septimus’s same-sex interactions, their interruptions by the opposite sex, and parenthood, perhaps Clarissa’s conformity to the stereotype of motherhood is what saves her from suicide. Septimus, in his aversion to having children, the products of heterosexual love, has no legacy to which he ‘must go back’ (p.174) to from the window. The ‘clock […] strik[es]’ (p.140) too late to interrupt him, unlike Clarissa, who at her window ‘did not pity him’ (p.174), and, with the clock striking the hour’ (p.174), is moved to go back and ‘assemble’ (p.174) not only herself, but her family. Clarissa, while ‘fe[eling] somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself’ (p.174), is very unlike him, submitting to a gender stereotype that saves her: Septimus ‘had thrown it away[,] while [she] went on living’ (p.174).

[1] Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, Sexual Inversion, ed. by Ivan Crozier (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008 [1897]), p.92.
[2] Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, Sexual Inversion, p.113.
[3] Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, Sexual Inversion, p.113.
[4] Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930 (Australia: Spinifex Press, 1997), p.142.Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930, p.142.
[5] Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930, p.142.
[6] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (London: Harper Press, 2013), p.29.
Subsequent references are taken from this edition and will be given in page references in parentheses in the body of the text.
[7] Charlotte Hjersing, ‘Representations of Clarissa and Septimus in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’ (degree thesis, Dalarna University, 2009), p.17.
[8] Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, Sexual Inversion, p.167.
[9] J. E. Kennard, ‘Power and Sexual Ambiguity: The Dreadnought Hoax, The Voyage Out, Mrs Dalloway, and Orlando’, in Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 20:2 (Winter, 1996), 149-64, p.158.
[10] J. E. Kennard, ‘Power and Sexual Ambiguity: The Dreadnought Hoax, The Voyage Out, Mrs Dalloway, and Orlando’, p.158.
[11] Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, Sexual Inversion, p.113.
[12] Sam Mitchell, ‘“The Stuff of Thought”: Virginia Woolf’s Object Lessons’ (honours thesis, University of Richmond, 2011), p.21.
[13] Charlotte Hjersing, ‘Representations of Clarissa and Septimus in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’, p.16.
[14] Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930, p.10.
[15] Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930, p.10.
[16] Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930, p.4.
[17] Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930, p.136.

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