Analysis

Miss Kilman bullies with her religion just as Sir William Bradshaw bullies with his science. The world has treated Miss Kilman badly because of her poverty, her ugliness, even her German name. She seeks revenge and wants to make Clarissa, who is likeable and attractive, unhappy the way she is. A falling tree killed Clarissa’s sister, and Miss Kilman would like to “fell” Clarissa. Trees, with their extensive root systems, are like the soul, so this metaphor suggests that Miss Kilman is out to kill souls, just as Sir William is. Clarissa feels this murderous impulse masquerades as love and finds the deception horrifying, especially since she believes Elizabeth is vulnerable to it. Clarissa sees religious, scientific, and romantic belief as false justification for the flaws and weaknesses in people’s characters, and she does not feel that these beliefs can explain the mystery of human beings’ isolation in a world of activity. Clarissa believes that everyone is responsible for themselves and for others. As a born-again Christian, Miss Kilman seeks to convert Elizabeth to her beliefs the way Sir William seeks to convert people to his idea of sanity. Because Miss Kilman is a woman, she does not have the opportunities for success as Sir William, but both characters thirst after domination in similar ways.

Elizabeth does not return Miss Kilman’s lesbian attraction, as Clarissa suspected, but she is attracted to the new ideas and options that Miss Kilman puts before her, even if her laziness precludes her from pursuing them. Elizabeth enjoys exploring London for an afternoon and considers career options, but she is not a complex thinker like Clarissa. Though new careers are now open to women, Elizabeth is too passive to delve deeply into new territory. Richard says that if he had had a boy, he would have encouraged him to work, but he does not encourage Elizabeth in this regard. While the social climate is changing for women, it does not seem as though Elizabeth will take a groundbreaking path; it seems likely that she will probably follow her parents into an upper-class life.

The old woman Clarissa watches in the window reveals the human conflict at the heart of the novel—the interplay between communication and privacy. Clarissa struggles to understand why people need privacy, if they need it at all, and what makes communication so difficult. Clarissa and the old woman have been neighbors for years, but, though Clarissa knows the woman’s movements, she does not know the woman’s name. The woman is a mystery, and her distance is both a comfort and an ache for Clarissa. The human soul must exist alone and look to itself for answers, but it also craves communication and the company of others. The rooms of a house are a metaphor for the soul, a safe but empty place where one can hide from or ignore the judgmental eyes of the world. Like the house metaphor, the figure of the old woman also suggests both the solace of the human soul and its loneliness. The soul can be shared with others only to a small degree, though Clarissa tries to solve this dilemma by throwing parties and constantly calling out to people to remember them. Clarissa’s reaching out is also limited, and no one even considers that Clarissa will invite Miss Kilman to the party that evening. Before Septimus’s suicide, he sees an old man on the staircase opposite his window, a scene that parallels Clarissa’s watching the old woman and emphasizes the extreme loneliness of characters living in their own private rooms.