“Fear no more the heat ’o the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages” is a quote from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline. The words are repeated or alluded to many times throughout Mrs. Dalloway, by both Clarissa and Septimus. What do the words mean, and why do Clarissa and Septimus repeat them?
Clarissa Dalloway first reads the words from Cymbeline in a bookshop window when she sets out to buy flowers for her party, and their meaning is particularly significant in light of World War I. The lines are from a funeral dirge and suggest that death is not a thing to be feared, but rather it should be seen as a relief from the hard struggles of life. World War I has wrought devastation throughout England, and tragedy or the possibility of it is never far from people’s thoughts. Clarissa, a middle-aged woman who is coming to terms with her own aging and eventual death, meditates on these lines throughout the day. The words foreshadow the death of Clarissa’s double, the veteran Septimus, who repeats them before he commits suicide.
The lines from Cymbeline connect to the strong use of nature imagery that appears throughout the novel. The characters who are most connected to nature, such as Clarissa and Septimus, are also the most responsive to poetry and reflect about death and their place in the world most frequently. Both Clarissa and Septimus feel the importance of fire. The “heat o’ the sun” can appear as something wonderful, like passion. Clarissa describes romantic love as “a match burning in a crocus.” The heat can also consume, however, and Septimus, mentally wounded by the horrors of war, feels that the world will erupt in flames, in a fire that can no longer be contained. Whether wonderful or deadly, the heat of the sun is constant, and something everyone must endure. The quote suggests that death be embraced as a release from the burden of endurance.
Woolf created Septimus Warren Smith as a double for Clarissa. In what ways are Clarissa and Septimus different? In what ways are they the same?
Woolf originally planned to have Clarissa die at the end of Mrs. Dalloway, but she decided instead to create a double for her, Septimus Warren Smith. Septimus would die in Clarissa’s place, while Clarissa continued to endure. Many obvious differences exist between the two characters. Septimus is a man and twenty years younger who has fought and been damaged in the war. Clarissa is of the upper class, while Septimus is a working-class clerk. Clarissa still finds meaning in the symbols of English society, such as the prime minister and expensive cars, while Septimus sees them as meaningless. While Clarissa is able to gather her face into a neat diamond shape so she can meet the world with pursed lips and an unflappable demeanor, Septimus’s lips are loose and he has lost the ability to focus or distinguish reality from his own visions. Septimus’s inner world overflows into the public sphere, whereas Clarissa's interior remains contained. Septimus is considered insane, while Clarissa remains sane.
Clarissa and Septimus differ, but they also share many physical and emotional qualities. Each has a beak-nose, enjoys being at home in the domestic sphere, and quotes Shakespeare. Both have doting spouses. The first time we encounter Septimus, he is observing the car that backfires, just as Clarissa is. Their similarities also go beyond these surface details. Both have an instinctive horror of those who crave power, such as Sir William and Miss Kilman. Both Clarissa and Septimus believe that people are connected to trees in a spiritual way, and nature matters a great deal to both of them. At the end of the novel, in a very direct link, Clarissa “felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself.” She realizes that Septimus's death is, like her party, an attempt to communicate. This moment is an epiphany, or moment of being, when Clarissa realizes that Septimus is in some way a part of herself.
Conversion is seen as a constant threat in the novel. Which characters wish to convert others, and what are they trying to convert others to? Are some characters more susceptible to conversion than others?
The two characters who try most actively to convert others in the novel are the psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, and Elizabeth’s history teacher, Doris Kilman. Sir William ostensibly attempts to convert people to his conception of health and science, while Miss Kilman introduces people to her views on religion and God. Both characters, however, seek dominion over others and use the concept of conversion only to gain power. Miss Kilman admits to herself that it is Clarissa’s soul she wishes to “subdue” and “make feel her mastery.” Miss Kilman seeks power in the name of Christianity, just as Sir William exiles people to mental institutions in the name of science.
The very sight of Sir William makes Clarissa uncomfortable, and she is highly sensitive to his desire to convert people to his worldview. Her awareness and vulnerability to Sir William’s and Miss Kilman’s greed for power comes from her ability to think deeply and empathize with others’ emotions and motivations. Septimus also has this acute awareness about the world around him, and he is even more susceptible to conversion than Clarissa, due to his low social status. English society is another force that tries to convert people, but it also, to some extent, protects the upper class from the control of someone like Sir William. While Lady Bradshaw succumbs to social—and marital—pressure, Lady Bruton, in contrast, is safe from Sir William’s clutches due to her close association with the empire. She may have lost her sense of “proportion” with her Canada obsession, but other members of her class will indulge and protect her. Characters who are more individual, like Clarissa and Septimus, are more at risk than those who view themselves purely as part of English society.
1. Mrs. Dalloway is constructed from many different points of view, and points of view are sometimes linked by an emotion, a sound, a visual image, or a memory. Describe three instances when the point of view changes and explain how Woolf accomplishes the transitions. How do the transitions correspond to the points of view being connected?
2. Flowers, gardens, and nature are important motifs in the novel. Choose three characters and describe their relationships to the natural world. What do these relationships reveal about the characters or their functions in the novel?
3. Characters in the novel come from a range of social classes. What does Peter mean when he feels the “pyramidal accumulation” that weighed on his generation is shifting? How did the old social order weigh particularly heavily on women?
4. What role does Sally Seton play in Clarissa’s life, and what is the significance of her surprise appearance at the party?
5. World War I affected all the characters in the book to some degree. How did the war influence at least three of the characters?
6. The multitude of minor characters in the novel can be compared to the chorus in a classical Greek drama. They are often observers in the street. Choose three or four minor characters and describe their roles. What is their importance to the novel as a whole?
7. When Clarissa reflects on Septimus’s death at the end of the novel, she experiences a moment of being, or an epiphany. What truth becomes clear to her, and why is it significant?
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