Friday, November 24, 2006

Character as a Function of Perspective in Modernist Literature


Here is another essay on Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.

Character as a Function of Perspective in Modernist Literature

In Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, we see the characters from various perspectives, thus allowing for a more dimensional understanding of each character’s personality. Rather than being antagonists or protagonists, Woolf’s characters are more subtle, more complex, and more real than could be described from a single viewpoint. We see Hugh Whitebread as a rather nice chap from Clarissa’s point of view, whereas Peter Walsh cannot bear his presence. Walsh himself is seen differently by Clarissa than by the gentlemen at Lady Bruton’s Luncheon. Part of what defines this novel as “modern” is this fluidity of perspective that allows the reader to arrive, within limits, at his or her own interpretation as to the nature of the characters, and how they function in the work as a whole. In this way modernist literature attempts to present characters in the way that they exist in real life; that is, in the context of the society in which they move.

Although we get various views of each character in the story, the best example of a character as seen from multiple viewpoints is Septimus Warren Smith, the focal character in the novel’s “counter-plot.” He has no overt relationship with the main “plot” of the novel, Clarissa’s party and her relationship with those who attend it, but he helps to define the manner in which we are to evaluate the idea of “viewpoint” in the novel. As the result of the strangeness of his character, the reader may find Septimus to be the easiest of the characters to define. When we look at how he is seen by the other characters in the novel, however, we find that each of them has a different view of who he is and how he should be dealt with.

To the reader it is clear from the earliest encounter with Mr. Smith that things are not as they should be with him. When his wife tries to distract him with the spectacle of the sky-writer spelling the name of some brand of toffee, he begins to cry. Then as a woman near him begins spelling out the name, Septimus goes on what appears to be some crazy acid flash-back. We find out later that he is a veteran of the war and is suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome which may or may not be complicated by some pre-existing emotional problem. At the time the novel takes place he is pretty much around the bend, though it isn’t clear whether those around him have realized this yet.

Lucrezia Warren Smith probably has the most accurate view of her husband, as she spends more time with him than any of the other characters. Indeed, it is this very intimacy which causes her a great deal of anxiety when no one else will believe that the problem she perceives exists. She is the only one to witness his fits of bizarre behavior, to have read his papers, to have heard him describe his hallucinations. Oddly she maintains a kind of hope-beyond-hope that her husband can and will recover. At first she resents him: “He was selfish. So men are. For he was not ill. Dr. Holmes said there was nothing the matter with him” (23). Later, when Septimus experiences a rare moment of clarity, Rezia seems to believe their former life will be restored. She declares her refusal to part with him, and begins to pack their things. Then Dr. Holmes arrives.

According to Dr. Holmes, all Septimus needs is something to take his mind off himself. Stiff upper lip and all that. Nothing a couple of bromides won’t cure. We don’t actually see Dr. Holmes, except in Rezia’s remembering his advice, until near the end of the novel. When he does appear, it is just in time to witness Septimus’ suicide. He makes his opinion of the late Mr. Smith quite clear, referring to him as “The coward” (149).

The other professional to whom the couple go for advice is Sir William Bradshaw. He finds the patient to be deeply disturbed and in need of isolation and rest. He recommends that Septimus go to home where he can rest and avoid excitement. Sir William Bradshaw’s methods are simple: “He shut people up” (102).

Peter Walsh even gets a brief look at Septimus in the park. His view of Septimus is unique. “And that is being young,” he thinks as he sees him apparently arguing with his wife (70).

We also get a fleeting glimpse of Septimus when Maisie Johnson asks him and Rezia the way to Regent’s Park Tube station. Though she only sees the couple for a moment, they make a life-long impression on her, “ . . .this couple gave her quite a turn . . . so that should she be very old she would still remember” (26). Septimus stands out particularly, “ . . . and the man-he seemed awfully odd” (26).

All of these examples show how Woolf uses multiple viewpoints in the creation of a character. In Septimus’ case, the differences in perspective are more pronounced than they are with any other character. This is due in part to the extreme nature of his personality in contrast to the more subtle attitudes of the other characters. The greater the extreme, the greater chance for misinterpretation, as in the case of Peter Walsh’s brush with the Warren Smiths in the park. It is also due in part to the physical circumstances of the other characters’ encounters with him. The scope ranges from a momentary encounter on a street corner or in the park to the intimacy of husband and wife. It is easy to disregard the more fleeting of these observations as trivial when evaluating Septimus’ character. But Woolf included each with the intent of illuminating some aspect of his appearance, his personality, his self.

In the same way she illuminates the characters of the main plot. Clarissa, Richard, Peter, Hugh, and others are all seen through their own and many other eyes. The contrasts are not as drastic as they are in people’s perceptions of Septimus, but they are there. Still, there is a general type that all eyes seem to assign to each character: Hugh is a snob, Richard a rather dull, outdoorish type, Peter is good-natured but incompetent, Clarissa is cold, yet a gifted socialite. By including the seemingly more mundane images her characters project, Woolf makes them more alive and accessible than is possible from single-viewpoint narrative. One of the goals of modernist literature seems to be to depict characters this way: as the amalgamation of many perspectives. This gives an insight into what modernist writers consider to be important in defining the nature of identity. Particularly that they see the self as being largely determined by how it exists in relation to society at large. The character of Septimus Warren Smith is the exception that proves the rule. Unable on a fundamental level to conform to society, Septimus self destructs.

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