The “Still” Life of Clarissa Dalloway:
Motion and Stasis in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
By Robert Russell Magee
Published on the holon project in June 2022: theholonproject.com
The word “still” appears approximately ninety times in Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. The word begins sentences; it ends sentences; but most often the word arrives amid detail, inserted neatly within description and interior monologue, sometimes within parenthetical interjections of narration or thought, a subtle yet frequently occurring grace note accentuating Woolf’s symphonic prose. “Still,” with its multiple parts of speech, is an auto-antonym of sorts: as an adjective, it means “motionless; stationary”; but as an adverb, it describes “the continuance of a previous action or condition” (OED). Put another way, the word “still” contains, in itself, a tension between motion and stasis, its resolution only revealed in the context provided by the words which surround it. And sometimes, even with the help of its verbal neighbors, its definition remains ambiguous as its semantic mutability–to be an adverb or adjective, that is the question–thwarts categorical distinction. But the word is not simply a point to puzzle, nor is it an amiable nothing. “Still” serves an important role, and its function in Woolf’s novel extends beyond mere description and ornamentation.
The word’s definitional contrariety alludes to and invokes an undercurrent which runs the length of the novel: its inherent tension between motion and stasis metonymically reflects the tension between motion and stasis which permeates the entirety of the text, one which informs and influences characters struggling with their own tensions of motion and stasis. One such character is the eponymous Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged woman of affluence who struggles with intrusive thoughts, the fear of aging, and a fragmented sense of selfhood–issues which stem from a certain perceptual relation between the motion of time and the perceived stagnancy of herself relative to the motion of others around her. Clarissa combats these mental hindrances through constant distractions, seeking via movement the thoughts, memories, and connections which stave off the encroaching anxieties lying just at the edge of her conscious, always at the ready to emerge and wreak havoc. Clarissa is caught in a precarious suspension, longing to move but fated to be halted, and it is from such a liminal space carved into the tension between motion and stasis that a grander philosophical and psychological exploration into the human psyche blooms like a flower, or rather, a conflagration.
The onset of the novel sees Clarissa heading out into London to “buy the flowers herself” (Woolf 3), immediately establishing the movement which carries the length of the novel in the form of various perambulations undertaken by Clarissa and other characters alike. But not an instant after she has left the house Clarissa is halted, “stiffened a little on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass” (Woolf 4), marking the first of many motion-intrusions which recur frequently throughout the text. However, Clarissa’s movement is but an isolated part of the greater motion of London–the hustle and bustle of passersby, “in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead” (Woolf 4). All around her there is motion, emphasized by the numerous present participles which dominate this early section. For Clarissa, the movement of London is not just commotion and chaos, but an affirmation of life itself. In motion the atomized aspects of life swirl into one composite whole; disorder begets order. As scholar Ann Banfield writes, “objects are reduced to ‘sense-data’ separable from sensations and observing subjects to ‘perspectives.’ Atomism multiplies these perspectives” (1). Such an impressionistic amalgamation comprised of the compounded parts of experience becomes a source of inspiration for Clarissa. She basks in the excitement, “loving it as she did with an absurd and faithful passion” (Woolf 5).
But motion does not simply enkindle a certain “passion” in Clarissa; the perceptual mosaic born out of London’s motion also inspires a sort of existential epiphany, a philosophical excavation into the intersection of subjectivity and objectivity, wherein the barriers which distinguish Clarissa’s singular perception of the world and the world which exists around her collapse, leaving only a monism which temporarily extinguishes the anxieties which plight her. As Clarissa muses,
somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but spread ever so far, her life, herself. But what was she dreaming as she looked into Hatchards’ shop window? What was she trying to recover? (Woolf 9)
Prompted by the motional “ebb and flow of things,” Clarissa’s interior monologue describes at once a self-fragmentation and an intersubjectivity, she “surviving,” Peter “surviving,” and “living in each other.” The flux of the external, the hustle and bustle of London, inspires an ontological flux within Clarissa, one fomented by the deconstruction of subject/object distinctions, exposing an interconnection between the self and the world around her. She is able to see the shards of herself reflected “here [and] there” in the world. But rather than becoming estranged by such a self-fragmentation spurred by the motional, Clarissa wields the interconnection like a sword, but one smithed from aluminum, not steel. As scholar Kathryn Van Wert writes, “Clarissa’s hope of recovering ‘the unseen’ in ‘this person or that’ is a thin defense against her continual confrontation with the absence at the core of her being” (214). Clarissa uses the imagined linkage between herself and the world to combat what she cannot bear to confront: that while “she felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on” (Woolf 8); that “this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing–nothing at all” (Woolf 10). The “absence at the core of her being” drives Clarissa to create such an interconnection between subjectivity and objectivity in order to halt the onslaught of the unthinkable–that time and age have ushered forth an indefatigable degeneration into nothingness and non-influence. In order words, Clarissa strives to still the constant motion of time through the disintegration of the self, a process catalyzed by the constant motion of London.
Clarissa’s striving to connect with her surroundings appears to be, on the surface, a “search for unity,” an attempt to bridge the internal and external, the private and the public; however, as scholar John Shin notes, such unity is illusory since the internal and the external do not reside in equal balance: “there is a continuous competition between them within Clarissa…The relationship between the two sides is pugnacious and always in an imbalance” (554). Arguing in favor of a negative dialectic which persists in the contest between interiority and exteriority, Shin draws on the constant state of motion which enables Clarissa to forge such an interconnection between herself and her surroundings, detailing that “Clarissa does not stay too long with one side before sharply turning to the other” (Shin 558)–a contrast to the moments when she is static, when the encroaching anxiety which she strives to suppress slowly begins to creep up from the depths of her mind. As he writes, “Alone in her room, her bed looks to be getting ‘narrower and narrower’ into the proportions of a coffin, and her candle is ‘half burnt’ (MD, 45–46), symbolizing a life that is approaching its end” (Shin 558). It is not coincidental that Clarissa, sitting in her bedroom stagnant and still, turns her critical gaze inward, falling towards self-deprecation: “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind” (Woolf 31). In an attempt to stifle such creeping thoughts, she then summons up her memories of Sally Seton when “then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life” (Woolf 35). When Clarissa is in motion, her mind is still; but when her legs are still, her mind wanders–a more dangerous occurrence, as she must actively work to divert the intrusive thoughts that spring from “the absence at the core of her being” which foment anxiety and threaten to paralyze her mental and physical faculties. Reminiscence is Clarissa’s defense against such intrusions.
However, reminiscence and remembrance are not infallible; their strength against intrusive thoughts is not resolute. Clarissa’s heartwarming reverie about Sally Seton is abruptly cut short: “‘Oh this horror!’ she said to herself, as if she had known all along that something would interrupt, would embitter her moment of happiness” (Woolf 35). The motion of Clarissa’s reminiscence is halted by “a sudden spasm, as if, while she mused, the icy claws had had the chance to fix in her” (Woolf 36). She falls prey to her despairing contemplations, “seeing the glass, the dressing-table, and all the bottles afresh, collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself” (Woolf 36). Her reflection in the glass containing “the whole of her at one point” conveys both the composite portrait of her fragmented self as well as the “put together” life which she strives for though cannot obtain. As scholar Mitchell Leashka writes, “The whole phasing of Clarissa’s life appears to be an effort toward order and peace; it is a valiant attempt to overcome human weakness and folly” (89); and yet, the “order” which her reflection seems to portray is not only tainted with the vestiges of time but it also belies the “faults, jealousies, vanities, [and] suspicions” (Woolf 36) which reside behind her image. The “whole” of her reflection taunts Clarissa as it reveals the failure in her frequent bouts of remembrance, the failure in her attempt to “re-member” both the dismembered fragments of her life, those past “moments of being,” as well as the imagined fragments of a different life, the one which she would have had “if she could have had her life over again!” (Woolf 10). At this recognition, despondency descends upon Clarissa, her mental caprice moving her closer and closer towards despair. But just before she is about to succumb to the depths, the continuous motion of Clarissa’s downward spiral is, as “a sudden spasm,” abruptly cut short by “the front-door bell!” (Woolf 39). Like a hand grasping Clarissa’s and pulling her up from the depths of her contemplation, Peter Walsh’s arrival is a reversal of the mental detriment most often spurred by the sudden halt of motion in the novel.
Moreover, Clarissa’s fixation on her party is yet another result of the attempt to allay her encroaching anxiety. As self-fragmentation occurs from the tension between motion and stasis, both physically (in her perambulation around London) and mentally (in her bedroom), so too does it emerge out of Clarissa’s stressful affair with planning her party. Clarissa’s obsession with how others perceive her drives the decision to throw a party, the desire to impress subsequently driving her anxiety to achieve it. But Clarissa’s preoccupation with how she is perceived by others extends beyond just party-planning; as she describes, “half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew…for no one was ever for a second taken in” (Woolf 10). Clarissa’s penchant to perform, to embody the “party consciousness” who is gregarious and hospitable, stems from the urgency to govern others’ perceptions of herself, a complex which reveals a deep insecurity about her own self-perception and self-valuation. As Leashka writes,
It becomes increasingly apparent that Clarissa’s gatherings are a means by which she measures her own worth: they are her opportunity for gaining the approval and admiration of others…That she continues to give parties to bolster her own sense of self, however, bespeaks a profound dissatisfaction with herself; a feeling so deeply rooted that she wishes to be someone other than Clarissa Dalloway.” (Leashka 88)
Clarissa’s attempt “to bolster her own sense of self” entails the opposite of the intended effect: her party foments the self-fragmentation which thrusts her deeper into anxiety. In the midst of her party, she muses, “Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another” (Woolf 166). Wavering upon the threshold of the function, both apart from and a part of the party, Clarissa is caught within the liminal space between inclusion and exclusion, suspended in both the movement of the social gathering and the stasis of the self. Clarissa counters such suspension by leaping from one partygoer to the next and engaging in brief conversation, her ecstatic motion contrasting the stagnancy of Peter who remains “standing in the corner” (Woolf 168) all the while.
But even Clarissa’s social leaps and bounds cannot resist the encroaching anxiety for long; inevitably “something would interrupt.” And indeed, it comes in the news of Septimus’s suicide which is the subject of gossip among some of her guests: “Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought” (Woolf 179). Septimus’s death is an intrusion into the movement of both Clarissa’s party and her attempts to evade the encroaching anxiety she seeks to stave off. And yet, in another reversal of events, Septimus’s death, itself the ultimately cessation of the movement of his life, becomes a source of inspiration for Clarissa. Like the hustle and bustle of London which catalyzes intersubjectivity, Clarissa finds an eerie interconnection between herself and Septimus, as she describes: “Somehow it was her disaster–her disgrace. It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness, and she forced to stand here in her evening dress” (Woolf 181). The “here [and] there” recalls Clarissa’s existential epiphany during her excursion to “buy the flowers herself,” thus bookending the movement of the novel between similar moments of stasis, one appearing at the beginning and the other at the end. Amidst the movement of the party, Clarissa is still, but her mind moves in deep contemplation of own life, and she is grateful for Septimus’s death, “glad that he had done it; thrown it away” because “he made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun” (Woolf 182). The halting of one motion, the death of one life, lends beauty to the motion of another, revealing the hope and significance inherent in the life which continues still.
Clarissa’s mid-party contemplation is yet another instance isolated in time, a moment, like many others, which Clarissa strives to pluck from time’s continual movement and force it into stasis, filing it away in the archives of her memory, to retrieve and relive at her whim. This is her defense against the anguish which the passage of time wreaks upon her sense of selfhood. However, what Clarissa invariably discovers is that her attempt to capture a moment so as to enrapture herself often has the opposite of the intended effect: the singularity of an individual instance deepens the deafening silence, the abyssal void, which surrounds it. She finds that, as Woolf writes in “A Sketch of the Past,” “these separate moments of being [are] however embedded in many more moments of non-being” (70). Time’s passage becomes more pronounced; the other memories which surround the one become more distant, “plunging” further away, and the process of their retrieval, the effort to recollect, in turn inspires more anxiety, revealing the “moments of non-being” which outnumber the “moments of being.” Clarissa’s attempt to apprehend time induces an all-consuming awareness that she cannot escape it–she cannot outrun the effects of age, the growing frailty of both her body and mind, the continuous straining of the relationships which once seemed impervious, and the burgeoning recognition of her own mortality. There is no stasis which can counter the movement of time, even in her mind. And to a greater extent, constant physical motion cannot withstand the impositions of time’s movement; no amount of distraction can successfully stave off the toll of aging. Clarissa’s predicament spawns from the denial of this realization, and the insecurities about her inward and outward appearances, the anxiety born of her self-perception relative to the way others see her, the disquiet which stems from the fear that she has lost the life she could or should have had–all extend from this singular source. Woolf’s novel, in its un-resolution of the tension between motion and stasis, ushers forth a radical existentialism grounded in the inability to cope with the passage of time despite one’s attempts to both move and stay still.
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