Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf
Contributed by Harvey Landy
Chapter 7

"It was awful...awful, awful!" Peter cried to himself, still sitting on the bench. "Still, one got over things." He began to come out of it. Then he saw a little girl accidentally run smack into a lady’s legs, and he laughed aloud.

The lady was Lucrezia. She had left Septimus alone on his bench, talking to his dead comrade Evans. She had been walking and asking herself, "Why should I suffer?" when the little girl ran into her.

Lucrezia contemplated how Septimus was getting worse, as she walked back toward him and saw him muttering to himself. When she sat beside him, he picked up her hand and gaped at it, as if terrified. She had removed her wedding ring, she told him, because her hands had grown so thin. He dropped her hand.

Septimus thought that she had ended their marriage. He felt both agony and relief. He was now free to go out alone and tell the truth to the world, which was "first that trees are alive; next there is no crime; next love, universal love." He gasped and trembled. A dog sniffed his legs. He panicked to see the dog turning into a man. He asked himself why he could see these things. He decided it was the heat wave: It had melted off his flesh and left his nerves exposed. He closed his eyes and rested. He became one with the earth, felt flowers growing through his body. The sound of an old man’s penny-whistle sounded like a shepherd boy’s piping, and the exquisite beauty of the sound carried him into ecstasy, as if to a high rock. He felt that something tremendous was about to happen. When he opened his eyes, he saw the world pulsing with life, saw beauty springing from it, saw leaves quivering, swallows swooping. He thought that "all of this, calm and reasonable as it was ... was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere."

It was time for his appointment with the new doctor. Lucrezia said, "It is time." But Septimus heard the word "time" differently. He heard Evans singing. He saw a man in grey walking toward him, and thought it was Evans. This led to a new string of visions. He stood up. Lucrezia tried to make him sit down; she asked him the time. "I will tell you the time..." said Septimus, strangely. Just then, Big Ben struck: It was a quarter to twelve.

The man in grey was Peter Walsh. He had left his bench, and as he passed Lucrezia and Septimus, he thought they were two young lovers who were having a quarrel. "But what was it about?" he wondered. Why did they look so desperate? He found it amusing that after his long absence from London, everything looked so strange, so new. He especially liked the women: their freshness, the elegant new fashions, the newly-universal habit of using make-up. He realized that a change had taken place since the War. "Those five years¾1918 to 1923¾had been, he suspected, somehow very important." Everyone seemed more open now, less careful about the old proprieties. He recalled Sally Seton. What had she¾"the wild, the daring, the romantic Sally"­¾done with her life? Ironically, she had married a rich man and settled down in a big house near Manchester.

He had liked Sally the best of all of Clarissa’s friends at Bourton. Sally had shown a knack for seeing through everything. She had even hated Hugh Whitbread, as had Peter. She had said that Hugh represented "all that was most detestable in British middle-class life." They had both mocked his snobbery and his slavish respect for the British aristocracy. And now he had his little job at Court. Peter almost pitied "the admirable Hugh" and his wife, "the Honorable Evelyn." They were so clueless, so class-bound. Peter also resented the fact that, at 53, he was going to ask Hugh’s help finding a job. He needed a better salary to support Daisy, if he married her. He would rather ask Richard Dalloway, he thought. He liked Richard: "He was a thorough good sort; a bit limited; a bit thick in the head; yes; but a thorough good sort." He lacked brilliance and imagination, and he was prudish, but he was also sensible and inexplicably nice. He was not a great politician. He was better outdoors, with horses and dogs. He had even rescued Clarissa’s sheepdog from a trap once, and set its leg himself. Perhaps that’s why Clarissa liked him. But Sally and Peter had both found him ridiculous, that summer at Bourton. Sally had begged Peter to elope with Clarissa and save her from the Hughs and Richards of this world. But Clarissa knew what she wanted, thought Peter. She had a "feminine" gift of making a complete world wherever she was. In a roomful of people, "it was Clarissa one remembered." Not that she was particularly beautiful or clever; just that, when she appeared, "there she was."

Peter tried to convince himself that he was no longer in love with her. But she kept returning to his thoughts, and he kept trying, as he always had, to "explain her." Was he still in love with her, then? he asked. Why had he wept that morning? She must have thought him a fool. If only she had married him, she could have saved him from becoming such a "a whimpering, snivelling old ass."

A strange sound interrupted his thoughts. A vagrant woman, standing by the Tube station, was singing an ancient song of love and sorrow. Peter imagined her still singing, in the same spot, ten million years in the future. He gave her a coin as he stepped into a taxi. 

Lucrezia, too, saw the old woman, and she pitied her. Lucrezia was walking with Septimus to the office of a new doctor, and as they walked, she began to believe that everything would turn out all right.

[At this point, the narrator flashes back to Septimus’s youth and tells the story of his past.]

When Septimus was a small boy, he had run away to London, in hopes of becoming a poet. After a few years, however, his experiences in the city had changed him; shabbiness and loneliness had made him shy, ambitious, and hostile. Then he fell in love with a public lecturer on Shakespeare, Miss Isabel Pole, who fueled his passion for books and ideas. He read and wrote furiously, almost to the point of madness. Then the War started, and Septimus immediately volunteered. "He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole." Oddly, Septimus proved brave and manly in the trenches. He drew the attention and affection of Evans, his officer. When Evans was killed in Italy, just before the Armistice, Septimus congratulated himself on his composure. The War had taught him to be indifferent to death. He stayed on in Milan. Then one evening, he fell into a panic because "he could not feel." In a state of numbness, he married Lucrezia, returned to England, and secured a respectable job. Then he began reading Shakespeare again. The beauty he had found in it as a youth had disappeared. Now he saw a hidden message in it, telling of "hatred, loathing, despair." Lucrezia had been excited about the prospect of living in England; but soon she began to wilt. It was dreary, and Septimus was growing strange. After five years, they still had no children. She did not know that Septimus was thinking that copulation was abominable, and that no one should bring children into this world of suffering. Gradually, the truth began revealing itself to him: People are savages; brutality triumphs over charity; everyone is wicked and mad. One night, Septimus heard Lucrezia weeping, but he felt nothing. Then he collapsed. Dr. Holmes¾characterized here as an arrogant, self-contented fool¾examined Septimus and said there was nothing the matter with him, that he should try taking up a hobby. He told Septimus to buck up, stop this nonsense, and do his duty by his charming wife. Septimus recoiled: "Human nature was on him¾the repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils." He felt he had to escape from Dr. Holmes. But Lucrezia, in her simple way, liked Dr. Holmes. Septimus saw this as a betrayal, a desertion. Then, when Lucrezia went out shopping, Septimus had experienced the first "great revelation": Evans had appeared in his room.

[The narrative now returns to the present.]

Big Ben struck the noon hour. Clarissa heard it as she lay her party dress on her bed; Lucrezia and Septimus heard it as they walked to the office of the new doctor, Sir William Bradshaw.

Sir William had built his reputation and personal wealth by tending to the very rich. He took cases such as Septimus’s as a public service, however. After only two minutes of examining Septimus, he concluded that it was "a case of complete physical and nervous breakdown, with every symptom in an advanced stage." He said that Septimus must be committed to a mental hospital. If he refused, he would be compelled, which was the law regarding suicidal cases. He lied to Lucrezia that he would visit Septimus weekly while he was in the institution. Septimus thought, "Once you fall, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. ... The rack and thumbscrew are applied. Human nature is remorseless." Dr. Bradshaw grew impatient: He had made his diagnosis, it was getting late, and these people were wasting his time. As he dismissed them, he told Lucrezia to trust him. But Lucrezia was in agony. "She had asked for help and been deserted! He had failed them! Sir William Bradshaw was not a nice man." She clung to Septimus, feeling suddenly loyal and protective.

Meanwhile, back in his office, Dr. Bradshaw congratulated himself on his quick and exact diagnosis. "Health we must have, and health is proportion," he thought. The doctor worshipped proportion, and by doing so, he "not only prospered himself but made England prosper." He "secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion." In the name of Proportion, he broke the will of opposers like Septimus, smashed their delusions, and locked them up. For this he was greatly admired.

But Lucrezia cried, as she continued walking with Septimus, that she did not like that man.

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