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Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf

By Jamie Gross


“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.”

– p.76, Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway explores the tensions inherent in the system of British colonialism
when the book was published in 1925. The book focuses on Mrs. Dalloway as a
central figure in “society,” and presents her role in life as one who brings others
together with her parties. She thinks of all the disparate people,
“...if only they could
be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create...” (p.122);
placing her social role within some divine transcendental order.

Within this exploration of proper society and Mrs. Dalloway as its conduit, appears
Peter Walsh, her ex-lover. As an Anglo-Indian who is self-exiled to India he represents
the working arm of the empire; it is his civilizing of the “uncivilized” which creates England
as superior and cultured. However there is a great tension throughout the book between
Peter and Clarissa because they are so different in their roles of creating the colonial empire.
She upholds the stuffy social order, and he removes himself from it in order to wrestle with the
“uncivilized” nature of India and “tame” it. Both Clarissa and Peter are repulsed, annoyed,
and infinitely attracted to the “other” which separates them from one another.

The passage I’ve selected above shows Peters thoughts about Clarissa and her supposed
criteria for making something of oneself. Peter’s self-critical monologues betray his own self-loathing
because as a key step in maintaining the empire, he has indeed bought into its economies. For
instance he clearly finds “hoary old Countesses” etc., as remote as possible from the realities
of the world, yet in the insular empire of England, these were people who had “done something”
with themselves. While Peter was in India defending, and in effect creating the colonial empire,
to the Upper-class society Clarissa inhabits, he is a failure. He is socially inept, nervously pulling
out his knife and playing with it (both a symbol of feral masculinity, and uncouth, untamed wilderness)
as well as not holding any enviable government post or position. It is, in fact, Peters poor, unfortunate
position to need to ask his childhood friends for help in obtaining a job back in England because his
colonialist skills do not seem to translate into polite society the way military training lands others
(like Septimus) posts in government.

What ultimately is betrayed by these tensions and contradiction is the creation of empire as that
exclusive duality only possible when contrasted to the “other.” In this interpersonal exploration
Peter Walsh represents the “otherness” of India, or Africa, or any other wild that English imperialism
was encroaching upon and “taming.” The fact that Peter effectively erases himself from England’s
polite society and becomes the embodiment of “other” shows the relative arbitrariness of such
distinctions; after all, he is “the colonialist” who is actively creating the empire, yet also he is the Other.

Theorist Judith Butler describes how to construct what counts as a body, a subject, one constructs
an abject being which is excluded. Although she discussed biological sex and gender, the same can
be said for Empire and Otherness.

  We see this most clearly in the examples of those abjected beings ...it is their very humanness that comes into question. Indeed, the construction of (the civilized) operates through exclusionary means, such that the human is not only produced over and against the inhuman, but through a set of foreclosures, radical erasures....These excluded sites come to bound the “human” as its constitutive outside, and to haunt those boundaries as the persistent possibility of their disruption and rearticulation.1

1 Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter : On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”(New York: Routledge, 1993) 8.

2001-2003 Jamie Gross | All Rights Reserved | Your Dearest Wish Will Come True | You stand in your own light | make it shine