- from Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf; pp. 33-38: She could see what she lacked. It was
not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which
broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together. For
that she could dimly perceive. She resented it, had a scruple picked up Heaven knows
where, or, as she felt, sent by Nature (who is invariably wise); yet she could not resist sometimes
yielding to the charm of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as to her they often did,
some scrape, some folly. And whether it was pity, or their beauty, or that she was older, or some
accident—like a faint scent, or a violin next door (so strange is the power of sounds at certain
moments), she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough. It
was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one
yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world
come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split
its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores!
Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner
meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over – the moment.
Against such moments (with women too) there contrasted (as she laid her hat down) the bed and
Baron Marbot and the candle half-burnt. Lying awake, the floor creaked; the lit house was
suddenly darkened, and if she raised her head she could just hear the click of the handle released
as gently as possible by Richard, who slipped upstairs in his socks and then, as often as not,
dropped his hot-water bottle and swore! How she laughed!
But this question of love (she thought, putting her coat away), this falling in love with women.
Take Sally Seton; her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?
She sat on the floor – that was her first impression of Sally – she sat on the floor with her
arms round her knees, smoking a cigarette. Where could it have been? The Mannings’? The
Kinloch-Joneses’? At some party (where, she could not be certain), for she had a distinct
recollection of saying to the man she was with, ‘Who is that?’ And he had told her, and
said that Sally’s parents did not get on (how that shocked her—that one’s parents should
quarrel!). But all that evening she could not take her eyes off Sally. It was an extraordinary
beauty of the kind she most admired, dark, large-eyed, with that quality which, since she
hadn’t got it herself, she always envied – a sort of abandonment, as if she could say anything, do
anything; a quality much commoner in foreigners than in English-women. Sally always said she
had French blood in her veins, an ancestor had been with Marie Antoinette, had his head cut off,
left a ruby ring. Perhaps that summer she came to stay at Bourton, walking in quite
unexpectedly without a penny in her pocket, one night after dinner, and upsetting poor Aunt
Helena to such an extent that she never forgave her. There had been some awful quarrel at
home. She literally hadn’t a penny that night when she came to them – had pawned a brooch to
come down. She had rushed off in a passion. They sat up till all hours of the night talking. Sally
it was who made her feel, for the first time, how sheltered the life at Bourton was. She knew
nothing about sex—nothing about social problems. She had once seen an old man who had
dropped dead in a field—she had seen cows just after their calves were born. But Aunt Helena
never liked discussion of anything (when Sally gave her William Morris, it had to be wrapped in
brown paper). There they sat, hour after hour, talking in her bedroom at the top of the house,
talking about life, how they were to reform the world. They meant to found a society to abolish
private property, and actually had a letter written, though not sent out. The ideas were Sally’s, of
course—but very soon she was just as excited — read Plato in bed before breakfast; read Morris;
read Shelley by the hour.
Sally’s power was amazing, her gift, her personality. There was her way with flowers, for
instance. At Bourton they always had stiff little vases all the way down the table. Sally went out,
picked hollyhocks, dahlias—all sorts of flowers that had never been seen together—cut their
heads off, and made them swim on the top of water in bowls. The effect was extraordinary—
coming in to dinner in the sunset. (Of course Aunt Helena thought it wicked to treat flowers like
that.) Then she forgot her sponge, and ran along the passage naked. That grim old housemaid,
Ellen Atkins, went about grumbling—‘Suppose any of the gentlemen had seen?’ Indeed she did
shock people. She was untidy, Papa said.
The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was
not like one’s feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested, and besides, it had a quality
which could only exist between women, between women just grown up. It was protective, on her
side; sprang from a sense of being in league together, a presentiment of something that was
bound to part them (they spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe), which led to this chivalry,
this protective feeling which was much more on her side than Sally’s. For 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. But the charm was overpowering, to her
at least, so that she could remember standing in her bedroom at the top of the house holding the
hot-water can in her hands and saying aloud, ‘She is beneath this roof . . . She is beneath this
No, the words meant absolutely nothing to her now. She could not even get an echo of her old
emotion. But she could remember going cold with excitement, and doing her hair in a kind of
ecstasy (now the old feeling began to come back to her, as she took out her hairpins, laid them on
the dressing-table, began to do her hair), with the rooks flaunting up and down in the pink
evening light, and dressing, and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall ‘if it were
now to die ‘twere now to be most happy’. That was her feeling—Othello’s feeling, and she
felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it, all because she
was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Setton!
She was wearing pink gauze – was that possible? She seemed, anyhow, all light, glowing,
like some bird or airball that has flown in, attached itself for a moment to a bramble. But nothing
is so strange when one is in love (and what was this except being in love?) as the complete
indifference of other people. Aunt Helena just wandered off after dinner; Papa read the paper.
Peter Walsh might have been there, and old Miss Cummings; Joseph Breitkopf certainly was,
for he came every summer, poor old man, for weeks and weeks, and pretended to read German
with her, but really played the piano and sang Brahms without any voice.
All this was only a background for Sally. She stood by the fireplace talking, in that beautiful
voice which made everything she said sound like a caress, to Papa, who had begun to be
attracted rather against his will (he never got over lending her one of his books and finding it
soaked on the terrace), when suddenly she said, ‘What a shame to sit indoors!’ and they all went
out on to the terrace and walked up and down. Peter Walsh and Joseph Breitkopf went on about
Wagner. She and Sally fell a little behind. Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole
life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips.
The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone
with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it,
not to look at it – a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked
(up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the
religious feeling! – when old Joseph and Peter faced them:
‘Star-gazing?’ said Peter.
It was like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness! It was shocking; it was
Not for herself. She felt only how Sally was being mauled already, maltreated; she felt his
hostility; his jealousy; his determination to break into their companionship. All this she saw as
one sees a landscape in a flash of lightning—and Sally (never had she admired her so much!)
gallantly taking her way unvanquished. She laughed. She made old Joseph tell her the names of
the stars, which he liked doing very seriously. She stood there: she listened. She heard the names
of the stars.
‘Oh this horror!’ she said to herself, as if she had known all along that something would
interrupt, would embitter her moment of happiness.
pp. 60-71: It was a splendid morning too. Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight
through the streets. There was no fumbling—no hesitation. Sweeping and swerving, accurately,
punctually, noiselessly, there, precisely at the right instant, the motor-car stopped at the door.
The girl, silk-stockinged, feathered, evanescent, but not to him particularly attractive (for he had
had his fling), alighted. Admirable butlers, tawny chow dogs, halls laid in black and white
lozenges with white blinds blowing, Peter saw through the opened door and approved of. A
splendid achievement in its own way, after all, London; the season; the civilisation. Coming as
he did from a respectable Anglo-Indian family which for at least three generations had
administered the affairs of a continent (it’s strange, he thought, what a sentiment I have
about that, disliking India, and empire, and army as he did), there were moments when
civilisation, even of this sort, seemed dear to him as a personal possession; moments of
pride in England; in butlers; chow dogs; girls in their security. Ridiculous enough, still there it is,
he thought. And the doctors and men of business and capable women all going about their
business, punctual, alert, robust, seemed to him wholly admirable, good fellows, to whom one
would entrust one’s life, companions in the art of living, who would see one through. What
with one thing and another, the show was really very tolerable; and he would sit down in the
shade and smoke.
There was Regent’s Park. Yes. As a child he had walked in Regent’s Park — odd, he thought,
how the thought of childhood keeps coming back to me — the result of seeing Clarissa,
perhaps; for women live much more in the past than we do, he thought. They attach
themselves to places; and their fathers — a woman’s always proud of her father. Bourton was a
nice place, a very nice place, but I could never get on with the old man, he thought. There was
quite a scene one night — an argument about something or other, what, he could not remember.
Yes, he remembered Regent’s Park; the long straight walk; the little house where one bought
air-balls to the left; an absurd statue with an inscription somewhere or other. He looked for an
empty seat. He did not want to be bothered (feeling a little drowsy as he did) by people asking
him the time. An elderly grey nurse, with a baby asleep in its perambulator — that was the best
he could do for himself; sit down at the far end of the seat by that nurse.
She’s a queer-looking girl, he thought, suddenly remembering Elizabeth as she came into the
room and stood by her mother. Grown big; quite grown-up, not exactly pretty; handsome rather;
and she can’t be more than eighteen. Probably she doesn’t get on with Clarissa. ‘Here’s my
Elizabeth’ — that sort of thing — why not ‘Here’s Elizabeth’ simply? – trying to make out, like
most mothers, that things are what they’re not. She trusts to her charm too much, he thought. She
The rich benignant cigar smoke eddied coolly down his throat; he puffed it out again in rings
which breasted the air bravely for a moment; blue, circular—I shall try and get a word alone
with Elizabeth to-night, he thought—then began to wobble into hour-glass shapes and taper
away; odd shapes they take, he thought. Suddenly he closed his eyes, raised his hand with an
effort, and threw away the heavy end of his cigar. A great brush swept smooth across his
mind, sweeping across it moving branches, children’s voices, the shuffle of feet, and people
passing, and humming traffic, rising and falling traffic. Down, down he sank into the plumes and
feathers of sleep, sank, and was muffled over.
The grey nurse resumed her knitting as Peter Walsh, on the hot seat beside her, began snoring. In
her grey dress, moving her hands indefatigably yet quietly, she seemed like the champion of the
rights of sleepers, like one of those spectral presences which rise in twilight in woods made of
sky and branches. The solitary traveller, haunter of lanes, disturber of ferns, and devastator of
great hemlock plants, looking up suddenly, sees the giant figure at the end of the ride.
By conviction an atheist perhaps, he is taken by surprise with moments of extraordinary
exaltation. Nothing exists outside us except a state of mind, he thinks; a desire for solace, for
relief, for something outside these miserable pigmies, these feeble, these ugly, these craven men
and women. But if he can conceive of her, then in some sort she exists, he thinks, and advancing
down the path with his eyes upon sky and branches he rapidly endows them with womanhood;
sees with amazement how grave they become; how majestically, as the breeze stirs them, they
dispense with a dark flutter of the leaves charity, comprehension, absolution, and then, flinging
themselves suddenly aloft, confound the piety of their aspect with a wild carouse.
Such are the visions which proffer great cornucopias full of fruit to the solitary traveller, or
murmur in his ear like sirens lolloping away on the green sea waves, or are dashed in his face
like bunches of roses, or rise to the surface like pale faces which fishermen flounder through
floods to embrace.
Such are the visions which ceaselessly float up, pace beside, put their faces in front of, the actual
thing; often overpowering the solitary traveller and taking away from him the sense of the earth,
the wish to return, and giving him for substitute a general peace, as if (so he thinks as he
advances down the forest ride) all this fever of living were simplicity itself; and myriads of
things merged in one thing; and this figure, made of sky and branches as it is, had risen from
the troubled sea (he is elderly, past fifty now) as a shape might be sucked up out of the waves to
shower down from her magnificent hands compassion, comprehension, absolution. So, he thinks,
may I never go back to the lamplight; to the sitting-room; never finish my book; never knock out
my pipe; never ring for Mrs. Turner to clear away; rather let me walk straight on to this great
figure, who will, with a toss of her head, mount me on her streamers and let me blow to
nothingness with the rest.
Such are the visions. The solitary traveller is soon beyond the wood; and there, coming to the
door with shaded eyes, possibly to look for his return, with hands raised, with white apron
blowing, is an elderly woman who seems (so powerful is this infirmity) to seek, over the desert, a
lost son; to search for a rider destroyed; to be the figure of the mother whose sons have been
killed in the battles of the world. So, as the solitary traveller advances down the village street
where the women stand knitting and the men dig in the garden, the evening seems ominous; the
figures still; as if some august fate, known to them, awaited without fear, were about to sweep
them into complete annihilation.
Indoors among ordinary things, the cupboard, the table, the window-sill with its geraniums,
suddenly the outline of the landlady, bending to remove the cloth, becomes soft with light, an
adorable emblem which only the recollection of cold human contacts forbids us to embrace.
She takes the marmalade; she shuts it in the cupboard.
‘There is nothing more to-night, sir?’
But to whom does the solitary traveller make reply?
So the elderly nurse knitted over the sleeping baby in Regent’s Park. So Peter Walsh snored.
He woke with extreme suddenness, saying to himself, ‘The death of the soul.’
‘Lord, Lord!’ he said to himself out loud, stretching and opening his eyes. ‘The death of the
soul.’ The words attached themselves to some scene, to some room, to some past he had been
dreaming of. It became clearer; the scene, the room, the past he had been dreaming of.
It was at Bourton that summer, early in the ‘nineties, when he was so passionately in
love with Clarissa. There were a great many people there, laughing and talking, sitting round a
table after tea, and the room was bathed in yellow light and full of cigarette smoke. They were
talking about a man who had married his housemaid, one of the neighbouring squires, he had
forgotten his name. He had married his housemaid, and she had been brought to Bourton to
call — an awful visit it had been. She was absurdly overdressed, ‘like a cockatoo,’ Clarissa had
said, imitating her, and she never stopped talking. On and on she went, on and on. Clarissa
imitated her. Then somebody said – Sally Seton it was – did it make any real difference to one’s
feelings to know that before they’d married she had had a baby? (In those days, in mixed
company, it was a bold thing to say.) He could see Clarissa now, turning bright pink; somehow
contracting; and saying, ‘Oh, I shall never be able to speak to her again!’ Whereupon the whole
party sitting round the tea-table seemed to wobble. It was very uncomfortable.
He hadn’t blamed her for minding the fact, since in those days a girl brought up as she was,
knew nothing, but it was her manner that annoyed him; timid; hard; arrogant; prudish. ‘The
death of the soul.’ He had said that instinctively, ticketing the moment as he used to do – the
death of her soul.
Every one wobbled; every one seemed to bow, as she spoke, and then to stand up different. He
could see Sally Seton, like a child who has been in mischief, leaning forward, rather flushed,
wanting to talk, but afraid, and Clarissa did frighten people. (She was Clarissa’s greatest friend,
always about the place, an—attractive creature, handsome, dark, with the reputation in those
days of great daring, and he used to give her cigars, which she smoked in her bedroom, and she
had either been engaged to somebody or quarrelled with her family, and old Parry disliked them
both equally, which was a great bond.) Then Clarissa, still with an air of being offended with
them all, got up, made some excuse, and went off, alone. As she opened the door, in came that
great shaggy dog which ran after sheep. She flung herself upon him, went into raptures. It was as
if she said to Peter – it was all aimed at him, he knew – ‘I know you thought me absurd about
that woman just now; but see how extraordinarily sympathetic I am; see how I love my Rob!’
They had always this queer power of communicating without words. She knew directly he
criticised her. Then she would do something quite obvious to defend herself, like this fuss with
the dog—but it never took him in, he always saw through Clarissa. Not that he said anything, of
course; just sat looking glum. It was that way their quarrels often began.
She shut the door. At once he became extremely depressed. It all seemed useless—going on
being in love; going on quarrelling; going on making it up, and he wandered off alone, among
outhouses, stables, looking at the horses. (The place was quite a humble one; the Parrys were
never very well off; but there were always grooms and stable-boys about – Clarissa loved
riding – and an old coachman – what was his name? – an old nurse, old Moody, old Goody,
some such name they called her, whom one was taken to visit in a little room with lots of
photographs, lots of bird-cages.)
It was an awful evening! He grew more and more gloomy, not about that only; about everything.
And he couldn’t see her; couldn’t explain to her; couldn’t have it out. There were always people
about—she’d go on as if nothing had happened. That was the devilish part of her—this coldness,
this woodenness, something very profound in her, which he had felt again this morning talking to
her; an impenetrability. Yet Heaven knows he loved her. She had some queer power of fiddling
on one’s nerves, turning one’s nerves to fiddle-strings, yes.
He had gone in to dinner rather late, from some idiotic idea of making himself felt, and had sat
down by old Miss Parry – Aunt Helena – Mr. Parry’s sister, who was supposed to preside. There
she sat in her white Cashmere shawl, with her head against the window – a formidable old lady,
but kind to him, for he had found her some rare flower, and she was a great botanist, marching
off in thick boots with a black tin collecting box slung between her shoulders. He sat down
beside her, and couldn’t speak. Everything seemed to race past him; he just sat there, eating.
And then half-way through dinner he made himself look across at Clarissa for the first time. She
was talking to a young man on her right. He had a sudden revelation. ‘She will marry that man,’
he said to himself. He didn’t even know his name.
For of course it was that afternoon, that very afternoon, that Dalloway had come over; and
Clarissa called him ‘Wickham’; that was the beginning of it all. Somebody had brought him
over; and Clarissa got his name wrong. She introduced him to everybody as Wickham. At last he
said ‘My name is Dalloway!’ – that was his first view of Richard – a fair young man, rather
awkward, sitting on a deck-chair, and blurting out ‘My name is Dalloway!’ Sally got hold of it;
always after that she called him ‘My name is Dalloway!’
He was a prey to revelations at that time. This one—that she would marry Dalloway—was
blinding—overwhelming at the moment. There was a sort of – how could he put it? – a sort of
ease in her manner to him; something maternal; something gentle. They were talking about
politics. All through dinner he tried to hear what they were saying.
Afterwards he could remember standing by old Miss Parry’s chair in the drawing-room. Clarissa
came up, with her perfect manners, like a real hostess, and wanted to introduce him to some
one – spoke as if they had never met before, which enraged him. Yet even then he admired her
for it. He admired her courage; her social instinct; he admired her power of carrying things
through. ‘The perfect hostess,’ he said to her, whereupon she winced all over. But he meant her
to feel it. He would have done anything to hurt her, after seeing her with Dalloway. So she left
him. And he had a feeling that they were all gathered together in a conspiracy against him—
laughing and talking—behind his back. There he stood by Miss Parry’s chair as though he had
been cut out of wood, talking about wild flowers. Never, never had he suffered so infernally! He
must have forgotten even to pretend to listen; at last he woke up; he saw Miss Parry looking
rather disturbed, rather indignant, with her prominent eyes fixed. He almost cried out that he
couldn’t attend because he was in Hell! People began going out of the room. He heard them
talking about fetching cloaks; about its being cold on the water, and so on. They were going
boating on the lake by moonlight – one of Sally’s mad ideas. He could hear her describing the
moon. And they all went out. He was left quite alone.
‘Don’t you want to go with them?’ said Aunt Helena – poor old lady! – she had guessed. And he
turned round and there was Clarissa again. She had come back to fetch him. He was overcome
by her generosity—her goodness.
‘Come along,’ she said. ‘They’re waiting.’
He had never felt so happy in the whole of his life! Without a word they made it up. They
walked down to the lake. He had twenty minutes of perfect happiness. Her voice, her laugh, her
dress (something floating, white, crimson), her spirit, her adventurousness; she made them all
disembark and explore the island; she startled a hen; she laughed; she sang. And all the time, he
knew perfectly well, Dalloway was falling in love with her; she was falling in love with
Dalloway; but it didn’t seem to matter. Nothing mattered. They sat on the ground and talked –
he and Clarissa. They went in and out of each other’s minds without any effort. And then in a
second it was over. He said to himself as they were getting into the boat, ‘She will marry that
man,’ dully, without any resentment; but it was an obvious thing. Dalloway would marry
Dalloway rowed them in. He said nothing. But somehow as they watched him start, jumping on
to his bicycle to ride twenty miles through the woods, wobbling off down the drive, waving his
hand and disappearing, he obviously did feel, instinctively, tremendously, strongly, all that; the
night; the romance; Clarissa. He deserved to have her.
For himself, he was absurd. His demands upon Clarissa (he could see it now) were absurd. He
asked impossible things. He made terrible scenes. She would have accepted him still, perhaps, if
he had been less absurd. Sally thought so. She wrote him all that summer long letters; how they
had talked of him; how she had praised him, how Clarissa burst into tears! It was an
extraordinary summer – all letters, scenes, telegrams – arriving at Bourton early in the morning,
hanging about till the servants were up; appalling tete-a-tetes with old Mr. Parry at
breakfast; Aunt Helena formidable but kind; Sally sweeping him off for talks in the
vegetable garden; Clarissa in bed with headaches.
The final scene, the terrible scene which he believed had mattered more than anything in the
whole of his life (it might be an exaggeration—but still, so it did seem now), happened at three
o’clock in the afternoon of a very hot day. It was a trifle that led up to it – Sally at lunch saying
something about Dalloway, and calling him ‘My name is Dalloway’; whereupon Clarissa
suddenly stiffened, coloured, in a way she had, and rapped out sharply, ‘We’ve had enough of
that feeble joke.’ That was all; but for him it was as if she had said, ‘I’m only amusing myself
with you; I’ve an understanding with Richard Dalloway.’ So he took it. He had not slept for
nights. ‘It’s got to be finished one way or the other,’ he said to himself. He sent a note to her by
Sally asking her to meet him by the fountain at three. ‘Something very important has happened,’
he scribbled at the end of it.
The fountain was in the middle of a little shrubbery, far from the house, with shrubs and trees all
round it. There she came, even before the time, and they stood with the fountain between them,
the spout (it was broken) dribbling water incessantly. How sights fix themselves upon the mind!
For example, the vivid green moss.
She did not move. ‘Tell me the truth, tell me the truth,’ he kept on saying. He felt as if his
forehead would burst. She seemed contracted, petrified. She did not move. ‘Tell me the truth,’
he repeated, when suddenly that old man Breitkopf popped his head in carrying the Times;
stared at them; gaped; and went away. They neither of them moved. ‘Tell me the truth,’ he
repeated. He felt that he was grinding against something physically hard; she was unyielding.
She was like iron, like flint, rigid up the backbone. And when she said, ‘It’s no use. It’s no use.
This is the end’—after he had spoken for hours, it seemed, with the tears running down his
cheeks—it was as if she had hit him in the face. She turned, she left him, she went away.
‘Clarissa!’ he cried. ‘Clarissa!’ But she never came back. It was over. He went away that night.
He never saw her again.
- pp. 82-90: He didn’t mind what he asked [Mr.] Dalloway. He was a thorough good sort; a bit
limited; a bit thick in the head; yes; but a thorough good sort. Whatever he took up he did in the
same matter-of-fact sensible way; without a touch of imagination, without a spark of brilliancy,
but with the inexplicable niceness of his type. He ought to have been a country gentleman – he
was wasted on politics. He was at his best out of doors, with horses and dogs – how good he was,
for instance, when that great shaggy dog of Clarissa’s got caught in a trap and had its paw half
torn off, and Clarissa turned faint and Dalloway did the whole thing; bandaged, made splints;
told Clarissa not to be a fool. That was what she liked him for, perhaps—that was what she
needed. ‘Now, my dear, don’t be a fool. Hold this—fetch that,’ all the time talking to the dog as
if it were a human being.
But how could she swallow all that stuff about poetry? How could she let him hold forth about
Shakespeare? Seriously and solemnly Richard Dalloway got on his hind legs and said that no
decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes
(besides, the relationship was not one that he approved). No decent man ought to let his wife
visit a deceased wife’s sister. Incredible! The only thing to do was to pelt him with sugared
almonds – it was at dinner. But Clarissa sucked it all in; thought it so honest of him; so
independent of him; Heaven knows if she didn’t think him the most original mind she’d ever
That was one of the bonds between Sally and himself. There was a garden where they used to
walk, a walled-in place, with rose-bushes and giant cauliflowers – he could remember Sally
tearing off a rose, stopping to exclaim at the beauty of the cabbage leaves in the moonlight (it
was extraordinary how vividly it all came back to him, things he hadn’t thought of for years),
while she implored him, half laughing of course, to carry off Clarissa, to save her from the
Hughs and the Dalloways and all the other ‘perfect gentlemen’ who would ‘stifle her soul’
(she wrote reams of poetry in those days), make a mere hostess of her, encourage her
worldliness. But one must do Clarissa justice. She wasn’t going to marry Hugh anyhow. She
had a perfectly clear notion of what she wanted. Her emotions were all on the surface. Beneath,
she was very shrewd – a far better judge of character than Sally, for instance, and with it all,
purely feminine; with that extraordinary gift, that woman’s gift, of making a world of her own
wherever she happened to be. She came into a room; she stood, as he had often seen her, in a
doorway with lots of people round her. But it was Clarissa one remembered. Not that she
was striking; not beautiful at all; there was nothing picturesque about her; she never said
anything specially clever; there she was, however; there she was.
No, no, no! He was not in love with her any more! He only felt, after seeing her that morning,
among her scissors and silks, making ready for the party, unable to get away from the thought of
her; she kept coming back and back like a sleeper jolting against him in a railway carriage;
which was not being in love, of course; it was thinking of her, criticising her, starting again,
after thirty years, trying to explain her. The obvious thing to say of her was that she was worldly;
cared too much for rank and society and getting on in the world—which was true in a sense;
she had admitted it to him. (You could always get her to own up if you took the trouble; she was
honest.) What she would say was that she hated frumps, fogies, failures, like himself
presumably; thought people had no right to slouch about with their hands in their pockets;
must do something, be something; and these great swells, these Duchesses, these hoary old
Countesses one met in her drawing-room, unspeakably remote as he felt them to be from
anything that mattered a straw, stood for something real to her. Lady Bexborough, she said
once, held herself upright (so did Clarissa herself; she never lounged in any sense of the word;
she was straight as a dart, a little rigid in fact). She said they had a kind of courage which the
older she grew the more she respected. In all this there was a great deal of Dalloway, of course; a
great deal of the public-spirited, British Empire, tariff-reform, governing-class spirit, which had
grown on her, as it tends to do. With twice his wits, she had to see things through his eyes—one
of the tragedies of married life. With a mind of her own, she must always be quoting Richard—
as if one couldn’t know to a tittle what Richard thought by reading the Morning Post of a
morning! These parties, for example, were all for him, or for her idea of him (to do Richard
justice he would have been happier farming in Norfolk). She made her drawing-room a sort of
meeting-place; she had a genius for it. Over and over again he had seen her take some raw
youth, twist him, turn him, wake him up; set him going. Infinite numbers of dull people
conglomerated round her, of course. But odd unexpected people turned up; an artist
sometimes; sometimes a writer; queer fish in that atmosphere. And behind it all was that
network of visiting, leaving cards, being kind to people; running about with bunches of
flowers, little presents; So-and-so was going to France – must have an air-cushion; a real
drain on her strength; all that interminable traffic that women of her sort keep up; but she
did it genuinely, from a natural instinct.
Oddly enough, she was one of the most thorough-going sceptics he had ever met, and possibly
(this was a theory he used to make up to account for her, so transparent in some ways, so
inscrutable in others), possibly she said to herself, As we are a doomed race, chained to a
sinking ship (her favourite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of
these nautical metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part;
mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the dungeon with
flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can. Those ruffians, the Gods, shan’t
have it all their own way – her notion being that the Gods, who never lost a chance of
hurting, thwarting and spoiling human lives, were seriously put out if, all the same, you
behaved like a lady. That phase came directly after Sylvia’s death—that horrible affair. To
see your own sister killed by a falling tree (all Justin Parry’s fault—all his carelessness)
before your very eyes, a girl too on the verge of life, the most gifted of them, Clarissa always
said, was enough to turn one bitter. Later she wasn’t so positive, perhaps; she thought there
were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for
the sake of goodness.
And of course she enjoyed life immensely. It was her nature to enjoy (though, goodness only
knows, she had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these
years, could make of Clarissa). Anyhow there was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of
moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you
walked with her in Hyde Park now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now
some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. (Very likely she would have
talked to those lovers, if she had thought them unhappy.) She had a sense of comedy that was
really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable
result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers,
talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her
discrimination. There she would sit at the head of the table taking infinite pains with some old
buffer who might be useful to Dalloway – they knew the most appalling bores in Europe – or in
came Elizabeth and every thing must give way to her. She was at a High School, at the
inarticulate stage last time he was over, a round-eyed, pale-faced girl, with nothing of her
mother in her, a silent stolid creature, who took it all as a matter of course, let her mother make a
fuss of her, and then said ‘May I go now?’ like a child of four; going off, Clarissa explained,
with that mixture of amusement and pride which Dalloway himself seemed to rouse in her, to
play hockey. And now Elizabeth was ‘out’, presumably; thought him an old fogy, laughed at her
mother’s friends. Ah well, so be it. The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought,
coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in hand, was simply this; that the passions
remain as strong as ever, but one has gained—at last!—the power which adds the supreme
flavour to existence—the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in
A terrible confession it was (he put his hat on again), but now, at the age of fifty-three, one
scarcely needed people any more. Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this
instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough. Too much, indeed. A whole lifetime
was too short to bring out, now that one had acquired the power, the full flavour; to extract
every ounce of pleasure, every shade of meaning; which both were so much more solid than
they used to be, so much less personal. It was impossible that he should ever suffer again as
Clarissa had made him suffer. For hours at a time (pray God that one might say these things
without being overheard!), for hours and days he never thought of Daisy.
Could it be that he was in love with her, then, remembering the misery, the torture, the
extraordinary passion of those days? It was a different thing altogether – a much pleasanter
thing – the truth being, of course, that now she was in love with him. And that
perhaps was the reason why, when the ship actually sailed, he felt an extraordinary relief,
wanted nothing so much as to be alone; was annoyed to find all her little attentions—cigars,
notes, a rug for the voyage—in his cabin. Every one if they were honest would say the same;
one doesn’t want people after fifty; one doesn’t want to go on telling women they are pretty;
that’s what most men of fifty would say, Peter Walsh thought, if they were honest.
But then these astonishing accesses of emotion—bursting into tears this morning, what was all
that about? What could Clarissa have thought of him? thought him a fool presumably, not for
the first time. It was jealousy that was at the bottom of it—jealousy which survives every other
passion of mankind, Peter Walsh thought, holding his pocket-knife at arm’s length. She had
been meeting Major Orde, Daisy said in her last letter; said it on purpose, he knew; said it to
make him jealous; he could see her wrinkling her forehead as she wrote, wondering what she
could say to hurt him; and yet it made no difference; he was furious! All this pother of coming to
England and seeing lawyers wasn’t to marry her, but to prevent her from marrying anybody else.
That was what tortured him, that was what came over him when he saw Clarissa so calm, so
cold, so intent on her dress or whatever it was; realising what she might have spared him, what
she had reduced him to—a whimpering, snivelling old ass. But women, he thought, shutting his
pocket-knife, don’t know what passion is. They don’t know the meaning of it to men. Clarissa
was as cold as an icicle. There she would sit on the sofa by his side, let him take her hand, give
him one kiss on the cheek – Here he was at the crossing.
A sound interrupted him; a frail quivering sound, a voice bubbling up without direction, vigour,
beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning into
ee um fah um so
foo swee too eem oo –
the voice of no age or sex, the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth; which issued,
just opposite Regent’s Park Tube Station, from a tall quivering shape, like a funnel, like a
rusty pump, like a wind-beaten tree for ever barren of leaves which lets the wind run up and
down its branches singing
ee um fah um so
foo swee too eem oo,
and rocks and creaks and moans in the eternal breeze.
Through all ages—when the pavement was grass, when it was swamp, through the age of tusk
and mammoth, through the age of silent sunrise — the battered woman – for she wore a skirt –
with her right hand exposed, her left clutching at her side, stood singing of love – love which has
lasted a million years, she sang, love which prevails, and millions of years ago, her lover, who
had been dead these centuries, had walked, she crooned, with her in May; but in the course of
ages, long as summer days, and flaming, she remembered, with nothing but red asters, he had
gone; death’s enormous sickle had swept those tremendous hills, and when at last she laid her
hoary and immensely aged head on the earth, now become a mere cinder of ice, she implored the
Gods to lay by her side a bunch of purple heather, there on her high burial place which the last
rays of the last sun caressed; for then the pageant of the universe would be over.
- pp. 91-103: Still remembering how once in some primeval May she had walked with her lover,
this rusty pump, this battered old woman with one hand exposed for coppers, the other clutching
her side, would still be there in ten million years, remembering how once she had walked in
May, where the sea flows now, with whom it did not matter – he was a man, oh yes, a man who
had loved her. But the passage of ages had blurred the clarity of that ancient May day; the bright
petalled flowers were hoar and silver frosted; and she no longer saw, when she implored him (as
she did now quite clearly) ‘look in my eyes with thy sweet eyes intently,’ she no longer saw
brown eyes, black whiskers or sunburnt face, but only a looming shape, a shadow shape, to
which, with the bird-like freshness of the very aged, she still twittered ‘give me your hand and
let me press it gently’ (Peter Walsh couldn’t help giving the poor creature a coin as he stepped
into his taxi), ‘and if someone should see, what matter they?’ she demanded; and her fist
clutched at her side, and she smiled, pocketing her shilling, and all peering inquisitive eyes
seemed blotted out, and the passing generations – the pavement was crowded with bustling
middle-class people – vanished, like leaves, to be trodden under, to be soaked and steeped
and made mould of by that eternal spring –
ee um fah um so
foo swee too eem oo.
‘Poor old woman,’ said Rezia Warren Smith.
Oh poor old wretch! she said, waiting to cross.
Suppose it was a wet night? Suppose one’s father, or somebody who had known one in
better days had happened to pass, and saw one standing there in the gutter? And where did
she sleep at night?
Cheerfully, almost gaily, the invincible thread of sound wound up into the air like the
smoke from a cottage chimney, winding up clean beech trees and issuing in a tuft of blue
smoke among the topmost leaves. ‘And if some one should see, what matter they?’
Since she was so unhappy, for weeks and weeks now, Rezia had given meanings to things
that happened, almost felt sometimes that she must stop people in the street, if they looked good,
kind people, just to say to them ‘I am unhappy’; and this old woman singing in the street ‘if some
one should see, what matter they?’ made her suddenly quite sure that everything was going to be
right. They were going to Sir William Bradshaw; she thought his name sounded nice; he
would cure Septimus at once. And then there was a brewer’s cart, and the grey horses had
upright bristles of straw in their tails; there were newspaper placards. It was a silly, silly
dream, being unhappy.
So they crossed, Mr. and Mrs. Septimus Warren Smith, and was there, after all, anything to
draw attention to them, anything to make a passer-by suspect here is a young man who carries in
him the greatest message in the world, and the most miserable? Perhaps they walked more
slowly than other people, and there was something hesitating, trailing, in the man’s walk, but
what more natural for a clerk, who has not been in the West End on a week-day at this hour for
years, than to keep looking at the sky, looking at this, that and the other, as if Portland Place
were a room he had come into when the family are away, the chandeliers being hung in holland
bags, and the caretaker, as she lets in long shafts of dusty light upon deserted, queer-looking
arm-chairs, lifting one corner of the long blinds, explains to the visitors what a wonderful
place it is; how wonderful, but at the same time, he thinks, how strange.
To look at, he might have been a clerk, but of the better sort; for he wore brown boots; his hands
were educated; so, too, his profile—his angular, big-nosed, intelligent, sensitive profile; but not
his lips altogether, for they were loose; and his eyes (as eyes tend to be), eyes merely; hazel,
large; so that he was, on the whole, a border case, neither one thing nor the other; might end
with a house at Purley and a motor car, or continue renting apartments in back streets all his
life; one of those half-educated, self-educated men whose education is all learnt from books
borrowed from public libraries, read in the evening after the day’s work, on the advice of
well-known authors consulted by letter.
As for the other experiences, the solitary ones, which people go through alone, in their
bedrooms, in their offices, walking the fields and the streets of London, he had them; had left
home, a mere boy, because of his mother; she lied; because he came down to tea for the fiftieth
time with his hands unwashed; because he could see no future for a poet in Stroud; and so,
making a confidant of his little sister, had gone to London leaving an absurd note behind him,
such as great men have written, and the world has read later when the story of their struggles
has become famous.
London has swallowed up many millions of young men called Smith; thought nothing of
fantastic Christian names like Septimus with which their parents have thought to distinguish
them. Lodging off the Euston Road, there were experiences, again experiences, such as
change a face in two years from a pink innocent oval to a face lean, contracted, hostile.
But of all this what could the most observant of friends have said except what a gardener
says when he opens the conservatory door in the morning and finds a new blossom on his
plant: -- It has flowered; flowered from vanity, ambition, idealism, passion, loneliness,
courage, laziness, the usual seeds, which all muddled up (in a room off the Euston Road),
made him shy, and stammering, made him anxious to improve himself, made him fall in
love with Miss Isabel Pole, lecturing in the Waterloo Road upon Shakespeare.
Was he not like Keats? she asked; and reflected how she might give him a taste of Antony and
Cleopatra and the rest; lent him books; wrote him scraps of letters; and lit in him such a fire
as burns only once in a lifetime, without heat, flickering a red gold flame infinitely ethereal and
insubstantial over Miss Pole; Antony and Cleopatra; and the Waterloo Road. He thought
her beautiful, believed her impeccably wise; dreamed of her, wrote poems to her, which,
ignoring the subject, she corrected in red ink; he saw her, one summer evening, walking in a
green dress in a square. ‘It has flowered,’ the gardener might have said, had he opened the door;
had he come in, that is to say, any night about this time, and found him writing; found him
tearing up his writing; found him finishing a masterpiece at three o’clock in the morning and
running out to pace the streets, and visiting churches, and fasting one day, drinking another,
devouring Shakespeare, Darwin, The History of Civilisation, and Bernard Shaw.
Something was up, Mr. Brewer knew; Mr. Brewer, managing clerk at Sibleys and
Arrowsmiths, auctioneers, valuers, land and estate agents; something was up, he thought, and,
being paternal with his young men, and thinking very highly of Smith’s abilities, and
prophesying that he would, in ten or fifteen years, succeed to the leather arm-chair in the
inner room under the skylight with the deed-boxes round him, ‘if he keeps his health,’ said Mr.
Brewer, and that was the danger – he looked weakly; advised football, invited him to supper and
was seeing his way to consider recommending a rise of salary, when something happened which
threw out many of Mr. Brewer’s calculations, took away his ablest young fellows, and
eventually, so prying and insidious were the fingers of the European War, smashed a plaster
cast of Ceres, ploughed a hole in the geranium beds, and utterly ruined the cook’s nerves at Mr.
Brewer’s establishment at Muswell Hill.
Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which
consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in
a square. There in the trenches the change which Mr. Brewer desired when he advised football
was produced instantly; he developed manliness; he was promoted; he drew the attention, indeed
the affection of his officer, Evans by name. It was a case of two dogs playing on a hearth-rug;
one worrying a paper screw, snarling, snapping, giving a pinch, now and then, at the old dog’s
ear; the other lying somnolent, blinking at the fire, raising a paw, turning and growling
good-temperedly. They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other,
quarrel with each other. But when Evans (Rezia, who had only seen him once, called him ‘a
quiet man’, a sturdy red-haired man, undemonstrative in the company of women), when Evans
was killed, just before the Armistice, in Italy, Septimus, far from showing any emotion or
recognising that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very
little and very reasonably. The War had taught him. It was sublime. He had gone through the
whole show, friendship, European War, death, had won promotion, was still under thirty and
was bound to survive. He was right there. The last shells missed him. He watched them
explode with indifference. When peace came he was in Milan, billeted in the house of an
innkeeper with a courtyard, flowers in tubs, little tables in the open, daughters making hats, and
to Lucrezia, the younger daughter, he became engaged one evening when the panic was on
him—that he could not feel.
For now that it was all over, truce signed, and the dead buried, he had, especially in the evening,
these sudden thunder-claps of fear. He could not feel. As he opened the door of the room
where the Italian girls sat making hats, he could see them; could hear them; they were
rubbing wires among coloured beads in saucers; they were turning buckram shapes this way
and that; the table was all strewn with feathers, spangles, silks, ribbons; scissors were rapping on
the table; but something failed him; he could not feel. Still, scissors rapping, girls laughing, hats
being made protected him; he was assured of safety; he had a refuge. But he could not sit there
all night. There were moments of waking in the early morning. The bed was falling; he was
falling. Oh for the scissors and the lamplight and the buckram shapes! He asked Lucrezia to
marry him, the younger of the two, the gay, the frivolous, with those little artist’s fingers that she
would hold up and say ‘It is all in them.’ Silk, feathers, what not were alive to them.
‘It is the hat that matters most,’ she would say, when they walked out together. Every hat that
passed, she would examine; and the cloak and the dress and the way the woman held herself.
Ill-dressing, over-dressing she stigmatised, not savagely, rather with impatient movements of the
hands, like those of a painter who puts from him some obvious well-meant glaring imposture;
and then, generously, but always critically, she would welcome a shop-girl who had turned her
little bit of stuff gallantly, or praise, wholly, with enthusiastic and professional understanding, a
French lady descending from her carriage, in chinchilla, robes, pearls.
‘Beautiful!’ she would murmur, nudging Septimus, that he might see. But beauty was behind a
pane of glass. Even taste (Rezia liked ices, chocolates, sweet things) had no relish to him. He put
down his cup on the little marble table. He looked at people outside; happy they seemed,
collecting in the middle of the street, shouting, laughing, squabbling over nothing. But he
could not taste, he could not feel. In the tea-shop among the tables and the chattering
waiters the appalling fear came over him – he could not feel. He could reason; he could
read, Dante for example, quite easily (‘Septimus, do put down your book,’ said Rezia,
gently shutting the Inferno), he could add up his bill; his brain was perfect; it must be
the fault of the world then—that he could not feel.
‘The English are so silent,’ Rezia said. She liked it, she said. She respected these
Englishmen, and wanted to see London, and the English horses, and the tailor-made suits, and
could remember hearing how wonderful the shops were, from an aunt who had married and
lived in Soho.
It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left
Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.
At the office they advanced him to a post of considerable responsibility. They were proud of
him; he had won crosses. ‘You have done your duty; it is up to us’-- began Mr. Brewer; and
could not finish, so pleasurable was his emotion. They took admirable lodgings off the
Tottenham Court Road.
Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of
language – Antony and Cleopatra – had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare
loathed humanity – the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the
mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of
words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing,
hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same. There Rezia sat at the table
trimming hats. She trimmed hats for Mrs. Filmer’s friends; she trimmed hats by the hour. She
looked pale, mysterious, like a lily, drowned, under water, he thought.
‘The English are so serious,’ she would say, putting her arms round Septimus, her cheek against
Love between man and woman was repulsive to Shakespeare. The business of copulation was
filth to him before the end. But, Rezia said, she must have children. They had been married five
They went to the Tower together; to the Victoria and Albert Museum; stood in the crowd to see
the King open Parliament. And there were the shops—hat shops, dress shops, shops with leather
bags in the window, where she would stand staring. But she must have a boy.
She must have a son like Septimus, she said. But nobody could be like Septimus; so gentle; so
serious; so clever. Could she not read Shakespeare too? Was Shakespeare a difficult author? she
One cannot bring children into a world like this. One cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the
breed of these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions, but only whims and vanities,
eddying them now this way, now that.
He watched her snip, shape, as one watches a bird hop, flit in the grass, without daring to move a
finger. For the truth is (let her ignore it) that human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor
charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment. They hunt in packs. Their
packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness. They desert the fallen. They are
plastered over with grimaces. There was Brewer at the office, with his waxed moustache, coral
tie-pin, white slip, and pleasurable emotions—all coldness and clamminess within, -- his
geraniums ruined in the War – his cook’s nerves destroyed; or Amelia Whatshername,
handing round cups of tea punctually at five – a leering, sneering obscene little harpy; and
the Toms and Berties in their starched shirt fronts oozing thick drops of vice. They never saw
him drawing pictures of them naked at their antics in his notebook. In the street, vans roared
past him; brutality blared out on placards; men were trapped in mines; women burnt alive; and
once a maimed file of lunatics being exercised or displayed for the diversion of the populace
(who laughed aloud), ambled and nodded and grinned past him, in the Tottenham Court Road,
each half apologetically, yet triumphantly, inflicting his hopeless woe. And would he go
At tea Rezia told him that Mrs. Filmer’s daughter was expecting a baby. She could not
grow old and have no children! She was very lonely, she was very unhappy! She cried for the
first time since they were married. Far away he heard her sobbing; he heard it accurately, he
noticed it distinctly; he compared it to a piston thumping. But he felt nothing.
His wife was crying, and he felt nothing; only each time she sobbed in this profound, this
silent, this hopeless way, he descended another step into the pit.
At last, with a melodramatic gesture which he assumed mechanically and with complete
consciousness of its insincerity, he dropped his head on his hands. Now he had surrendered;
now other people must help him. People must be sent for. He gave in.
Nothing could rouse him. Rezia put him to bed. She sent for a doctor – Mrs. Filmer’s Dr.
Holmes. Dr. Holmes examined him. There was nothing whatever the matter, said Dr. Holmes.
Oh, what a relief! What a kind man, what a good man! thought Rezia. When he felt like that he
went to the music hall, said Dr. Holmes. He took a day off with his wife and played golf. Why
not try two tabloids of bromide dissolved in a glass of water at bedtime? These old Bloomsbury
houses, said Dr. Holmes, tapping the wall, are often full of very fine panelling, which the
landlords have the folly to paper over. Only the other day, visiting a patient, Sir Somebody
Something, in Bedford Square—
So there was no excuse; nothing whatever the matter, except the sin for which human nature
had condemned him to death; that he did not feel. He had not cared when Evans was killed; that
was worst; but all the other crimes raised their heads and shook their fingers and jeered and
sneered over the rail of the bed in the early hours of the morning at the prostrate body which lay
realising its degradation; how he had married his wife without loving her; had lied to her;
seduced her; outraged Miss Isabel Pole, and was so pocked and marked with vice that women
shuddered when they saw him in the street. The verdict of human nature on such a wretch was
Dr. Holmes came again. Large, fresh-coloured, handsome, flicking his boots, looking in the
glass, he brushed it all aside—headaches, sleeplessness, fears, dreams—nerve symptoms and
nothing more, he said. If Dr. Holmes found himself even half a pound below eleven stone six, he
asked his wife for another plate of porridge at breakfast. (Rezia would learn to cook porridge.)
But, he continued, health is largely a matter in our own control. Throw yourself into outside
interests; take up some hobby. He opened Shakespeare—Antony and Cleopatra; pushed
Shakespeare aside. Some hobby, said Dr. Holmes, for did he not owe his own excellent health
(and he worked as hard as any man in London) to the fact that he could always switch off from
his patients on to old furniture? And what a very pretty comb, if he might say so, Mrs. Warren
Smith was wearing!
When the damned fool came again, Septimus refused to see him. Did he indeed? said Dr.
Holmes, smiling agreeably. Really he had to give that charming little lady, Mrs. Smith, a
friendly push before he could get past her into her husband’s bedroom.
‘So you’re in a funk,’ he said agreeably, sitting down by his patient’s side. He had actually
talked of killing himself to his wife, quite a girl, a foreigner, wasn’t she? Didn’t that give her a
very odd idea of English husbands? Didn’t one owe perhaps a duty to one’s wife? Wouldn’t it be
better to do something instead of lying in bed? For he had had forty years’ experience behind
him; and Septimus could take Dr. Holmes’s word for it – there was nothing whatever the matter
with him. And next time Dr. Holmes came he hoped to find Smith out of bed and not making
that charming little lady his wife anxious about him.
Human nature, in short, was on him – the repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils. Holmes
was on him. Dr. Holmes came quite regularly every day. Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on
the back of a postcard, human nature is on you. Holmes is on you. Their only chance was to
escape, without letting Holmes know; to Italy—anywhere, anywhere, away from Dr. Holmes.
But Rezia could not understand him. Dr. Holmes was such a kind man. He was so
interested in Septimus. He only wanted to help them, she said. He had four little children and he
had asked her to tea, she told Septimus.
So he was deserted. The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes.
But why should he kill himself for their sakes? Food was pleasant; the sun hot; and this killing
oneself, how does one set about it, with a table knife, uglily, with floods of blood, -- by sucking a
gaspipe? He was too weak; he could scarcely raise his hand. Besides, now that he was quite
alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about to die are alone, there was a luxury in it, an
isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know. Holmes had won of
course; the brute with the red nostrils had won. But even Holmes himself could not touch this
last relic straying on the edge of the world, this outcast, who gazed back at the inhabited
regions, who lay, like a drowned sailor, on the shore of the world.
It was at that moment (Rezia had gone shopping) that the great revelation took place. A voice
spoke from behind the screen. Evans was speaking. The dead were with him.
‘Evans, Evans!’ he cried.
- pp. 154-162: In many ways, her mother felt, she was extremely immature, like a child still,
attached to dolls, to old slippers; a perfect baby; and that was charming. But then, of course,
there was in the Dalloway family the tradition of public service. Abbesses, principals, head
mistresses, dignitaries, in the republic of women – without being brilliant, any of them, they
were that. She penetrated a little farther in the direction of St. Paul’s. She liked the geniality,
sisterhood, motherhood, brotherhood of this uproar. It seemed to her good. The noise was
tremendous; and suddenly there were trumpets (the unemployed) blaring, rattling about in the
uproar; military music; as if people were marching; yet had they been dying – had some woman
breathed her last, and whoever was watching, opening the window of the room where she had
just brought off that act of supreme dignity, looked down on Fleet Street, that uproar, that
military music would have come triumphing up to him, consolatory, indifferent.
It was not conscious. There was no recognition in it of one’s fortune, or fate, and for that very
reason even to those dazed with watching for the last shivers of consciousness on the faces of the
Forgetfulness in people might wound, their ingratitude corrode, but this voice, pouring endlessly,
year in year out, would take whatever it might be; this vow; this van; this life; this procession,
would wrap them all about and carry them on, as in the rough stream of a glacier the ice holds a
splinter of bone, a blue petal, some oak trees, and rolls them on.
But it was later than she thought. Her mother would not like her to be wandering off alone like
this. She turned back down the Strand.
A puff of wind (in spite of the heat, there was quite a wind) blew a thin black veil over the sun
and over the Strand. The faces faded; the omnibuses suddenly lost their glow. For although the
clouds were of mountainous white so that one could fancy hacking hard chips off with a
hatchet, with broad golden slopes, lawns of celestial pleasure gardens, on their flanks, and had
all the appearance of settled habitations assembled for the conference of gods above the world,
there was a perpetual movement among them. Signs were interchanged, when, as if to fulfil
some scheme arranged already, now a summit dwindled, now a whole block of pyramidal
size which had kept its station inalterably advanced into the midst or gravely led the procession
to fresh anchorage. Fixed though they seemed at their posts, at rest in perfect unanimity,
nothing could be fresher, freer, more sensitive superficially than the snow-white or gold-kindled
surface; to change, to go, to dismantle the solemn assemblage was immediately possible; and in
spite of the grave fixity, the accumulated robustness and solidity, now they struck light to the
earth, now darkness.
Calmly and competently, Elizabeth Dalloway mounted the Westminster omnibus.
Going and coming, beckoning, signalling, so the light and shadow, which now made the wall
grey, now the bananas bright yellow, now made the Strand grey, now made the omnibuses
bright yellow, seemed to Septimus Warren Smith lying on the sofa in the sitting-room; watching
the watery gold glow and fade with the astonishing sensibility of some live creature on the roses,
on the wall-paper. Outside the trees dragged their leaves like nets through the depths of the air;
the sound of water was in the room, and through the waves came the voices of birds singing.
Every power poured its treasures on his head, and his hand lay there on the back of the sofa, as
he had seen his hand lie when he was bathing, floating, on the top of the waves, while far away
on shore he heard dogs barking and barking far away. Fear no more, says the heart in the body;
fear no more.
He was not afraid. At every moment Nature signified by some laughing hint like that gold spot
which went round the wall – there, there, there – her determination to show, by brandishing her
plumes, shaking her tresses, flinging her mantle this way and that, beautifully, always
beautifully, and standing close up to breathe through her hollowed hands Shakespeare’s words,
Rezia, sitting at the table twisting a hat in her hands, watched him; saw him smiling. He was
happy then. But she could not bear to see him smiling. It was not marriage; it was not being
one’s husband to look strange like that, always to be starting, laughing, sitting hour after hour
silent, or clutching her and telling her to write. The table drawer was full of those writings;
about war; about Shakespeare; about great discoveries; how there is no death. Lately he had
become excited suddenly for no reason (and both Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw said
excitement was the worst thing for him), and waved his hands and cried out that he knew the
truth! He knew everything! That man, his friend who was killed, Evans, had come, he said. He
was singing behind the screen. She wrote it down just as he spoke it. Some things were very
beautiful; others sheer nonsense. And he was always stopping in the middle, changing his
mind; wanting to add something; hearing something new; listening with his hand up. But she
And once they found the girl who did the room reading one of these papers in fits of laughter. It
was a dreadful pity. For that made Septimus cry out about human cruelty—how they tear each
other to pieces. The fallen, he said, they tear to pieces. ‘Holmes is on us,’ he would say, and he
would invent stories about Holmes; Holmes eating porridge; Holmes reading Shakespeare –
making himself roar with laughter or rage, for Dr. Holmes seemed to stand for something
horrible to him. ‘Human nature’, he called him. Then there were the visions. He was
drowned, he used to say, and lying on a cliff with the gulls screaming over him. He would
look over the edge of the sofa down into the sea. Or he was hearing music. Really it was
only a barrel organ or some man crying in the street. But ‘Lovely!’ he used to cry, and the
tears would run down his cheeks, which was to her the most dreadful thing of all, to see a
man like Septimus, who had fought, who was brave, crying. And he would lie listening
until suddenly he would cry that he was falling down, down into the flames! Actually she
would look for flames, it was so vivid. But there was nothing. They were alone in the
room. It was a dream, she would tell him, and so quiet him at last, but sometimes she
was frightened too. She sighed as she sat sewing.
Her sigh was tender and enchanting, like the wind outside a wood in the evening. Now she put
down her scissors; now she turned to take something from the table. A little stir, a little
crinkling, a little tapping built up something on the table there, where she sat sewing.
Through his eyelashes he could see her blurred outline; her little black body; her face and
hands; her turning movements at the table, as she took up a reel, or looked (she was apt to
lose things) for her silk. She was making a hat for Mrs. Filmer’s married daughter, whose
name was – he had forgotten her name.
‘What is the name of Mrs. Filmer’s married daughter?’ he asked.
‘Mrs. Peters,’ said Rezia. She was afraid it was too small, she said, holding it before her. Mrs.
Peters was a big woman; but she did not like her. It was only because Mrs. Filmer had been so
good to them – ‘She gave me grapes this morning,’ she said – that Rezia wanted to do something
to show that they were grateful. She had come into the room the other evening and found Mrs.
Peters, who thought they were out, playing the gramophone.
‘Was it true?’ he asked. She was playing the gramophone? Yes; she had told him about it at the
time; she had found Mrs. Peters playing the gramophone.
He began, very cautiously, to open his eyes, to see whether a gramophone was really there. But
real things – real things were too exciting. He must be cautious. He would not go mad. First he
looked at the fashion papers on the lower shelf, then gradually at the gramophone with the
green trumpet. Nothing could be more exact. And so, gathering courage, he looked at the
sideboard; the plate of bananas; the engraving of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort; at the
mantelpiece, with the jar of roses. None of these things moved. All were still; all were real.
‘She is a woman with a spiteful tongue,’ said Rezia.
‘What does Mr. Peters do?’ Septimus asked.
‘Ah,’ said Rezia, trying to remember. She thought Mrs. Filmer had said that he travelled for
some company. ‘Just now he is in Hull,’ she said.
‘Just now!’ She said that with her Italian accent. She said that herself. He shaded his eyes so
that he might see only a little of her face at a time, first the chin, then the nose, then the
forehead, in case it were deformed, or had some terrible mark on it. But no, there she was,
perfectly natural, sewing, with the pursed lips that women have, the set, the melancholy
expression, when sewing. But there was nothing terrible about it, he assured himself,
looking a second time, a third time at her face, her hands, for what was frightening or
disgusting in her as she sat there in broad daylight, sewing? Mrs. Peters had a spiteful
tongue. Mr. Peters was in Hull. Why then rage and prophesy? Why fly scourged and
outcast? Why be made to tremble and sob by the clouds? Why seek truths and deliver
messages when Rezia sat sticking pins into the front of her dress, and Mr. Peters was in
Hull? Miracles, revelations, agonies, loneliness, falling through the sea, down, down into the
flames, all were burnt out, for he had a sense, as he watched Rezia trimming the straw hat for
Mrs. Peters, of a coverlet of flowers.
‘It’s too small for Mrs. Peters,’ said Septimus.
For the first time for days he was speaking as he used to do! Of course it was – absurdly
small, she said. But Mrs. Peters had chosen it.
He took it out of her hands. He said it was an organ grinder’s monkey’s hat.
How it rejoiced her that! Not for weeks had they laughed like this together, poking fun privately
like married people. What she meant was that if Mrs. Filmer had come in, or Mrs. Peters or
anybody, they would not have understood what she and Septimus were laughing at.
‘There,’ she said, pinning a rose to one side of the hat. Never had she felt so happy!
Never in her life!
But that was still more ridiculous, Septimus said. Now the poor woman looked like a pig at a
fair. (Nobody ever made her laugh as Septimus did.)
What had she got in her work-box? She had ribbons and beads, tassels, artificial flowers. She
tumbled them out on the table. He began putting odd colours together—for though he had no
fingers, could not even do up a parcel, he had a wonderful eye, and often he was right,
sometimes absurd, of course, but sometimes wonderfully right.
‘She shall have a beautiful hat!’ he murmured, taking up this and that, Rezia kneeling by his
side, looking over his shoulder. Now it was finished – that is to say the design; she must stitch it
together. But she must be very, very careful, he said, to keep it just as he had made it.
So she sewed. When she sewed, he thought, she made a sound like a kettle on the hob;
bubbling, murmuring, always busy, her strong little pointed fingers pinching and poking; her
needle flashing straight. The sun might go in and out, on the tassels, on the wall-paper, but he
would wait, he thought, stretching out his feet, looking at his ringed sock at the end of the sofa;
he would wait in this warm place, this pocket of still air, which one comes on at the edge of a
wood sometimes in the evening, when, because of a fall in the ground, or some arrangement of
the trees (one must be scientific above all, scientific), warmth lingers, and the air buffets the
cheek like the wing of a bird.
‘There it is,’ said Rezia, twirling Mrs. Peters’ hat on the tips of her fingers. ‘That’ll do for the
moment. Later . . .’ her sentence bubbled away drip, drip, drip, like a contented tap left
It was wonderful. Never had he done anything which made him feel so proud. It was so real, it
was so substantial, Mrs. Peters’ hat.
‘Just look at it,’ he said.
Yes, it would always make her happy to see that hat. He had become himself then, he had
laughed then. They had been alone together. Always she would like that hat.
- pp. 164-169: They were perfectly happy now, she said suddenly, putting the hat down. For she
could say anything to him now. She could say whatever came into her head. That was almost the
first thing she had felt about him, that night in the cafe when he had come in with his English
friends. He had come in, rather shyly, looking round him, and his hat had fallen when he hung it
up. That she could remember. She knew he was English, though not one of the large
Englishmen her sister admired, for he was always thin; but he had a beautiful fresh colour; and
with his big nose, his bright eyes, his way of sitting a little hunched, made her think, she had
often told him, of a young hawk, that first evening she saw him, when they were playing
dominoes, and he had come in – of a young hawk; but with her he was always very gentle.
She had never seen him wild or drunk, only suffering sometimes through this terrible war, but
even so, when she came in, he would put it all away. Anything, anything in the whole world, any
little bother with her work, anything that struck her to say she would tell him, and he
understood at once. Her own family even were not the same. Being older than she was
and being so clever – how serious he was, wanting her to read Shakespeare before she
could even read a child’s story in English! – being so much more experienced, he could help
her. And she, too, could help him.
But this hat now. And then (it was getting late) Sir William Bradshaw.
She held her hands to her head, waiting for him to say did he like the hat or not, and as she sat
there, waiting, looking down, he could feel her mind, like a bird, falling from branch to branch,
and always alighting, quite rightly; he could follow her mind, as she sat there in one of those
loose lax poses that came to her naturally, and, if he should say anything, at once she smiled, like
a bird alighting with all its claws firm upon the bough.
But he remembered. Bradshaw said, ‘The people we are most fond of are not good for us when
we are ill.’ Bradshaw said he must be taught to rest. Bradshaw said they must be separated.
‘Must,’ ‘must,’ why ‘must’? What power had Bradshaw over him? ‘What right has
Bradshaw to say “must” to me?’ he demanded.
‘It is because you talked of killing yourself,’ said Rezia. (Mercifully, she could now say anything
So he was in their power! Holmes and Bradshaw were on him! The brute with the red nostrils
was snuffing into every secret place! ‘Must’ it could say! Where were his papers? the things he
She brought him his papers, the things he had written, things she had written for him. She
tumbled them out on to the sofa. They looked at them together. Diagrams, designs, little men and
women brandishing sticks for arms, with wings – were they? – on their backs; circles traced
round shillings and sixpences – the suns and stars; zigzagging precipices with mountaineers
ascending roped together, exactly like knives and forks; sea pieces with little faces laughing
out of what might perhaps be waves: the map of the world. Burn them! he cried. Now for his
writings; how the dead sing behind rhododendron bushes; odes to Time; conversations with
Shakespeare; Evans, Evans, Evans – his messages from the dead; do not cut down the trees;
tell the Prime Minister. Universal love: the meaning of the world. Burn them! he cried.
But Rezia laid her hands on them. Some were very beautiful, she thought. She would tie them up
(for she had no envelope) with a piece of silk.
Even if they took him, she said, she would go with him. They could not separate them against
their wills, she said.
Shuffling the edges straight, she did up the papers, and tied the parcel almost without looking,
sitting close, sitting beside him, he thought, as if all her petals were about her. She was a
flowering tree; and through her branches looked out the face of a lawgiver, who had reached a
sanctuary where she feared no one; not Holmes; not Bradshaw; a miracle, a triumph, the
last and greatest. Staggering he saw her mount the appalling staircase, laden with Holmes
and Bradshaw, men who never weighed less than eleven stone six, who sent their wives to
Court, men who made ten thousand a year and talked of proportion; who differed in their
verdicts (for Holmes said one thing, Bradshaw another), yet judges they were; who mixed
the vision and the sideboard; saw nothing clear, yet ruled, yet inflicted. Over them she
‘There!’ she said. The papers were tied up. No one should get at them. She would put them
And, she said, nothing should separate them. She sat down beside him and called him by the
name of that hawk or crow which being malicious and a great destroyer of crops was precisely
like him. No one could separate them, she said.
Then she got up to go into the bedroom to pack their things, but hearing voices downstairs and
thinking that Dr. Holmes had perhaps called, ran down to prevent him coming up.
Septimus could hear her talking to Holmes on the staircase.
‘My dear lady, I have come as a friend,’ Holmes was saying.
‘No. I will not allow you to see my husband,’ she said.
He could see her, like a little hen, with her wings spread barring his passage. But Holmes
‘My dear lady, allow me . . .’ Holmes said, putting her aside (Holmes was a powerfully built
Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door. Holmes would say, ‘In a funk,
eh?’ Holmes would get him. But no; not Holmes; not Bradshaw. Getting up rather unsteadily,
hopping indeed from foot to foot, he considered Mrs. Filmer’s nice clean bread-knife with
‘Bread’ carved on the handle. Ah, but one mustn’t spoil that. The gas fire? But it was too late
now. Holmes was coming. Razors he might have got, but Rezia, who always did that sort of
thing, had packed them. There remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury lodging-house
window; the tiresome, the troublesome, and rather melodramatic business of opening the window
and throwing himself out. It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia’s (for she was with him).
Holmes and Bradshaw liked that sort of thing. (He sat on the sill.) But he would wait till the very
last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings? Coming
down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. ‘I’ll
give it you!’ he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area
‘The coward!’ cried Dr. Holmes, bursting the door open. Rezia ran to the window, she saw; she
understood. Dr. Holmes and Mrs. Filmer collided with each other. Mrs. Filmer flapped her apron
and made her hide her eyes in the bedroom. There was a great deal of running up and down
stairs. Dr. Holmes came in—white as a sheet, shaking all over, with a glass in his hand. She must
be brave and drink something, he said (What was it? Something sweet), for her husband was
horribly mangled, would not recover consciousness, she must not see him, must be spared as
much as possible, would have the inquest to go through, poor young woman. Who could have
foretold it? A sudden impulse, no one was in the least to blame (he told Mrs. Filmer). And why
the devil he did it, Dr. Holmes could not conceive.
It seemed to her as she drank the sweet stuff that she was opening long windows, stepping out
into some garden. But where? The clock was striking—one, two, three: how sensible the sound
was; compared with all this thumping and whispering; like Septimus himself. She was falling
asleep. But the clock went on striking, four, five, six and Mrs. Filmer waving her apron (they
wouldn’t bring the body in here, would they?) seemed part of that garden; or a flag. She had
once seen a flag slowly rippling out from a mast when she stayed with her aunt at Venice. Men
killed in battle were thus saluted, and Septimus had been through the War. Of her memories,
most were happy.
She put on her hat, and ran through cornfields – where could it have been? – on to some hill,
somewhere near the sea, for there were ships, gulls, butterflies; they sat on a cliff. In London,
too, there they sat, and, half dreaming, came to her through the bedroom door, rain falling,
whisperings, stirrings among dry corn, the caress of the sea, as it seemed to her, hollowing them
in its arched shell and murmuring to her laid on shore, strewn she felt, like flying flowers over
‘He is dead,’ she said, smiling at the poor old woman who guarded her with her honest light-blue
eyes fixed on the door. (They wouldn’t bring him in here, would they?) But Mrs. Filmer
pooh-poohed. Oh no, oh no! They were carrying him away now. Ought she not to be told?
Married people ought to be together, Mrs. Filmer thought. But they must do as the doctor
‘Let her sleep,’ said Dr. Holmes, feeling her pulse. She saw the large outline of his body dark
against the window. So that was Dr. Holmes.
- from The Waves by Virginia Woolf; pp. lvii-lxii [Introduction by Molly Hite]: At the
close of the novel, when Bernard resolves to fight his last enemy, Death, he likens himself to
Percival, riding against death “with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young
man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India”.
Like Jacob in Jacob’s Room, Percival is modeled to a degree on Virginia Woolf’s older
brother, Thoby Stephen, who died of typhoid fever after a visit to Greece in 1906. Of the many
family deaths she suffered while young, Thoby’s was in many respects the most significant
because it led her to formulate her stance of resistance and her view of reality as a particular
kind of experience or force. When at work on The Waves, she wrote in a diary entry of
“walking up this street, engaged with my anguish, as I was after Thoby died — alone; fighting
something alone.” This mode of fighting, her response to this bereavement, became a recipe for
living: “If I never felt these extraordinarily pervasive strains—of unrest or rest or happiness or
discomfort—I should float down into acquiescence. Here is something to fight: & when I wake
early I say to myself Fight, fight” (October 11, 1929, Diary 3: 260). Woolf made the
connection between Percival and Thoby clear at the conclusion of The Waves, not only
because Bernard expresses her attitude of “Fight, fight” but because she contemplated writing
“Julian Thoby Stephen 1881-1906 on the first page”. Like Jacob’s Room, then, The
Waves was in part a requiem for her brother.
But like Jacob in the earlier novel—and live Thoby Stephen, whom Woolf pictured later as an
“inheritor” of literary, academic, and professional tradition—Percival is explicitly privileged, a
member of the ruling class who, unlike women of any class, is educated to rule. Like Jacob
again, he is strangely unknowable, as much an absence defined by the yearning figures who
surround him as a present character. Apparently large, beautiful, athletic, charismatic,
unintellectual, unreflective, conventional, and a natural leader, he inspires obedience, respect,
adoration, and, according to Louis, poetry. With no represented interiority, he seems almost to
have no interior. Neville describes him in a boat, “lounging on the cushions, monolithic, in
giant repose,” and observes, “[H]e is always the first to detect insincerity; and is brutal in the
extreme”. Louis adores “his magnificence” and decries his “slovenly accents”. Bernard
hypothesizes long after his death that Percival might have emerged in his colonial
administrative post as a rebel: “He would have done justice. He would have protected.
About the age of forty he would have shocked the authorities”. The peroration anticipates
some of Woolf’s comments on Thoby in “A Sketch of the Past”: In college he was “already, in
anticipation, a law maker”.
And in a very odd moment during the farewell dinner, Bernard describes Percival as “a God”.
The epithet fits some of the imagery associated with this silent monolith, whose name (Percival,
Parzifal, or Parsifal, depending on the language) harks back to Arthurian tradition, where it is
associated with purity, innocence, bravery, quest, the Holy Grail—an ultimate object of desire in
Christian folklore—and a kind of idiocy: Percival is known in the Grail legend as the Fool. The
Arthurian Percival lurks in the background of The Waste Land as the knight whose
question, had he asked it, could have cured the Fisher King. Further, according to Julia Briggs, in
The Waves Percival occupies the place of the sun hero, or year hero in primitive religions:
the god-man who is destroyed and falls back to earth when the sun is at its zenith. Yet although
the way Percival is presented keeps him radically separate rather than enmeshed in the fine web
of relationships and ideas that we see among the others, he is not, within the value system of the
novel, clearly godlike. His conventionality, leadership, charisma, and especially his choice of
career in colonial administration may inspire unease in readers, especially those familiar with
Virginia Woolf’s own positions, expressed both in private writings like diaries and letters and in
published writings like the long essays A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, on
imperialism and on masculine privilege and dominance.
The speech in which Bernard terms Percival “a God” occurs during the farewell dinner and, like
the story of Elvedon that Bernard told Susan when both were children, constructs a fantasy of
an alternate place. “I see India,” Bernard begins, and goes on to describe a landscape of
“ramshackle pagodas,” “bullocks who drag a low cart,” natives “chattering excitedly” over an
accident, and an “old man in a ditch” who “continues to chew betel and to contemplate his
navel.” Into this hackneyed setting, presumably familiar to the listeners from colonial
adventure stories, comes Percival, a shabby hero in the tradition of the two wanderers in
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” or the more ethical and ironic Marlow in
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, riding “a flea-bitten mare” and dealing with the upset
oxcart by “applying the standards of the West, by using the violent language that is natural to
him.” Bernard’s conclusion is grandiose and memorable: “The Oriental problem is solved.”
The phrase “the Oriental problem” historically described various troubled European relations
with Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian colonies, with the word Oriental
homogenizing all such countries into one problematic other. The details of Bernard’s fantasy
are also homogenizing and stereotypical, built on romantic clichés of Empire thoroughly
debunked by the people in the Woolfs’ circle, including Leonard Woolf, who had been a
colonial administrator in Ceylon and decided there that imperialism was a mistake. It seems
likely, then, that the passage is satiric. But who does the satirizing, and at whose expense? Is
Bernard a critic of empire here? His story is exaggerated and affably funny, of course, but he
says nothing, here or later, to suggest that he believes Percival should not have a career
adventuring in the colonies and setting natives right. Immediately after he finishes, Rhoda
treats his story as a reverent encomium and echoes its sentiments. Does the satire occur, then, at
the expense of all the characters, and is Woolf presenting all the speakers, as well as Percival, as
collusive in a racist fantasy? If so, what are readers supposed to think and feel about them, at this
moment and elsewhere? Or should we conclude that the passage is not, in fact, satiric, and that
Woolf herself simply endorses here what the editor of the holograph Waves manuscripts,
J. W. Graham, calls “the irrational adherence to traditional values so apparent in the conventional
Percival, the strong, silent youth who goes to a far country in the service of Empire, as one of its
culture heroes”? Part of the design of The Waves is that such questions can, indeed must,
be asked—and cannot be easily answered.
The Absence of Tonal Cues in The Waves
The problem with all such attempts to interpret this particular moment is that there are no clear
signals within the text to show readers where values should be assigned. For example, Woolf
could have used a more extended third-person narrator to go beyond the words “said Bernard,”
adding reliable information about Bernard’s intentions in telling the story. The decision to
structure the novel from soliloquies “running homogeneously in & out, in the rhythm of the
waves” ruled out such uses of the narrator. The decision to give the characters a functional
equality, at least until the closing section, in which Bernard alone “speaks,” makes it difficult to
privilege one or two of the characters over the others as having authorial sanction: as voicing
views and values that express attitudes held by Woolf herself. Furthermore, the rhetorically
heightened “speeches” contain the characters in the lyric present, representing them at some
points as communicating but keeping their utterances more solitary than social.
The episode of “the Oriental problem” is thus important because it is a particularly pressing
example of an effect that Woolf put a great deal of effort into achieving throughout The
Waves. It is simplest to describe this effect negatively: as an absence of those tonal cues that
in most fiction are crucial to locating the author’s values and thus help readers discover what
they are supposed to think and feel about the events and characters in a story. But in the long
process of writing The Waves, Virginia Woolf came to regard effacing or minimizing
such cues as part of the positive task faced by the modern experimental writer.
In a diary entry as she was beginning to conceptualize The Waves, she wrote of the
need to “eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it
includes.” Her notion of “the moment” was that it was “saturated”—it must “include
nonsense, fact, sordidity: but made transparent” (November 28, 1928, Diary 3: 209-10).
What might transparency entail? In an essay written the year before, she had in effect called for a
novel like The Waves, which like poetry would “say the simple things which are so
tremendous” but would also “take the mould of that queer conglomeration of incongruous
things—the modern mind” that is “full of monstrous, hybrid, unmanageable emotions” (“The
Narrow Bridge of Art” 20, 19-20, 12). Such a novel would be revolutionary in its concern for
“the relation of the mind to general ideas and its soliloquy in solitude,” and in its lack of concern
for “the incessant, the remorseless analysis” of interpersonal relations, especially the romantic
relations. In the process of formulating her most experimental novel, she seems also to have
erased much of the “remorseless analysis” of motives and values that has so much to do with
long-standing traditions of prose fiction. Motives and values are in play in The Waves, but
they are not specified or settled. They are raised as part of a very different project, which stands
“further back from life,” expressing “the feeling and ideas of the characters closely and vividly,
but from a different angle”.
Readers plunged into the saturated lyric present of The Waves are not thereby removed
from questions of ethics or politics, but they do view those questions from a different angle. Not
only the problems of empire and the future of Western Europe, but, more obviously, questions
about gender and class intrude without a clear indication of what one is supposed to believe or
how one is supposed to feel about them.
“The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss
and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against
our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a
giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.”
- acidflux: "[The Waves] is probably Virginia Woolf's least accessible book. It's not one I'd normally recommend for my patrons at the library unless they really love Virginia Woolf's writing, or they love Shakespeare. The soliloquy nature in the way the six characters speak can make for a daunting read if you are looking for straightforward narrative. I wouldn't rank it with her best, but I applaud the experimental nature. The way the characters personality and story slowly move over you, you come to accept the writing as normal and it eventually feels like you aren't reading six separate people, but one communal feeling. This is helped by their thoughts and recollections of the Percival character. Although he isn't one of the main six characters, you get to know him very well."