The Significance of Water in Mrs. Dalloway
Throughout Mrs. Dalloway, the use of imagery involving water is very apparent. These images connect different parts of the novel to each other and draw together the lives of two seemingly unrelated characters, Septimus and Clarissa. Through this imagery, and through Virginia Woolf’s unique style, connections can also be drawn between things like past and present and the relationship between Clarissa and Septimus, even though these characters never actually meet. Thus, Woolf’s style and her use of water imagery help to enhance the theme of interconnectedness in the novel.
Virginia Woolf wrote this novel in a style that is unlike that of most authors. Instead of including chapters or breaks in between different sections of the story, she wrote Mrs. Dalloway as one continuous sequence of events, all taking place over the span of one day. Her unique style in writing this novel can be tied in with the recurring use of water imagery, because the way that the book is written almost mirrors the flowing action of water. After the events in one character’s life, and his or her thoughts and feelings are shared, the story flows on to another character. An instance where this occurs can be found on page 136, where the novel shifts from Elizabeth Dalloway’s perspective to Septimus’s: “Calmly and competently, Elizabeth Dalloway mounted the Westminster omnibus. Going and coming, beckoning, signaling, 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.” By not pausing or leaving any space in between sections, Woolf is emphasizing how connected the lives of each of the characters are, even though some of them have never even met each other.
The motif of water and waves is also apparent in the syntax used in Mrs. Dalloway. On page 55, Woolf describes Peter’s slow transition into being asleep as 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.” Woolf’s syntax in this description parallels the wave-like, rising and falling motion of the sea. By describing the process of falling asleep in such a way, Woolf makes it seem like Peter is drowning, not going to sleep. This description is significant because it helps to further strengthen the flowing nature of the novel and provides support for the idea that water and the sea are both major elements in the story.
The use of water-like imagery starts at the very beginning of the story, as Clarissa “plunges” into her day on the first page (“What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.”) Also included in the very beginning of the book are phrases that relate to waves and the ocean, such as “the flap of a wave,” “the kiss of a wave,” and “rising” and “falling” of the rooks on page 1. Imagery and diction pertaining to the rising and falling of waves in the ocean is evident not only in the first few pages, but throughout the story as well. These images introduce the idea that water is closely related to the events in the novel, and how water reflects a lot of the action that takes place in it.
Water is like the backbone that ties together all of the events and characters in the story. Similar to how Clarissa “plunges” into her day on the first page, Septimus feels that he is slowly sinking into insanity after his experience in World War I, and his subsequent shell-shock as a result of the horrible things that he witnessed. On page 67, Woolf describes Septimus’s insanity: “But he himself remained high on his rock, like a drowned sailor on a rock. I leant over the edge of the boat and fell down, he thought. I went under the sea. I have been dead, and yet am now alive, but let me rest still; he begged…”
Septimus’s feelings of drowning and being unable to escape his life are similar to how Clarissa feels in her own life and with her marriage to Richard, which she still wonders about because she had more passion for Peter, but married Richard instead so that she could have more financial security. On page 8, Woolf describes Clarissa’s feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world, which are similar to how Septimus feels in his insanity: “She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” Like Septimus, Clarissa feels as though she cannot escape the demands of society and is struggling to “stay afloat” in her life. Septimus eventually finds it to be too hard to keep from “drowning” in his life, and decides to commit suicide by jumping out of his window in the end, but Clarissa finds a way to get through hers and survive.
The use of water imagery also serves to connect the past and the present of characters’ lives in Mrs. Dalloway. On page 29, Woolf describes Clarissa’s fear of time, and how she feels that she is running out of it in her life as she gets older: “But she feared time itself, and read on Lady Bruton’s face, as if it had been a dial cut in impassive stone, the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence, so that she filled the room she entered, and felt often as she stood hesitating one moment on the threshold of her drawing-room, an exquisite suspense, such as might stay a diver before plunging while the sea darkens and brightens beneath him, and the waves which threaten to break, but only gently split their surface, roll and conceal and encrust as they just turn over the weeds with pearl.” Here, aging is compared to a diver right before jumping into the water, and also to the gradual ebb and flow of waves on the beach. This water imagery relates Clarissa’s past experiences to how she feels in the present, and as a result, helps to further strengthen the theme of interconnectedness in the novel.
Another way that water imagery helps interlink the characters in Mrs. Dalloway is through its repetition and recurrence throughout the story. On almost every page, an image involving either water or the repeating rising and falling action of waves in the ocean can be found. In addition to creating a more vivid description of the events and characters in the novel, this imagery serves to emphasize the importance of water in the relationship between the different characters in the story and their lives.
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the use of imagery involving water is abundant in many places throughout the story. This water imagery is significant because it helps to create a more accurate portrayal of the lives and characters in the story, and also because it helps to further enhance and emphasize one of the main themes in the book: the interconnectedness between characters and their past and present lives.