Mrs. Dalloway’s “Supreme Mystery” (Passage Analysis)

In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf writes of Clarissa’s anger that erupts after her daughter Elizabeth leaves the house with Miss Kilman in the afternoon just before her party, which is set to take place that evening. In her rage for sweeping Elizabeth away to talk of “religion and love”, Clarissa describes Miss Kilman as a “prehistoric monster armoured for primeval warfare” who “overwhelmed her” (Woolf 126). This sparks something in Clarissa and starts her on an internal monologue concerning issues like personal agency, religion, war, government, her childhood friend Peter, as well as observations on the old woman who lives next door. Clarissa’s stream of thoughts don’t  seem to arrive at any indefinite conclusions, however, in this passage we get a glimpse at the “supreme mystery” that seems to haunt her throughout the entire novel.

“Big Ben struck the half-hour. How extraordinary it was, strange, yes, touching, to see the old lady (they had been neighbours ever so many years) move away from the window, as if she were attached to that sound, that string. Gigantic as it was, it had something  to do with her. Down, down, into the midst of ordinary things the finger fell making the moment solemn. She was forced, so Clarissa imagined, by that sound, to move, to go–but where? Clarissa tried to follow her as she turned and disappeared, and could still just see her white cap moving at the back of the bedroom. She was still there moving about at the other end of the room. Why creeds and prayers and mackintoshes? when, thought Clarissa, that’s the miracle, that’s the mystery; that old lady, she meant, whom she could see going from chest of drawers to dressing-table. She could still see her. And the supreme mystery which Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn’t believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?” (Woolf 127)

The paragraph begins with Clarissa’s statement about her neighbor, the old woman whom she has been neighbors with for “so many years.” The woman moves away from the window because of Big Ben’s clock ringing. The clock, which functions as a key element of temporality for the reader, as well as a kind of monument of the British Empire, civility and rule of land.  It functions as a motif to show that time is moving, but also that the world moves along with it, people dictating their daily lives around, not just Big Ben, but the larger, more obscured metaphorical clock of life. Clarissa sees the old woman “attached to the sound”, “forced” by it. She sees this as something innate. “…down, down…,” writes Woolf, “into the midst of ordinary things.” Where as you or I might go about our day never thinking of time as having power over us, Clarissa is conscious to the “solemn” moment of the clock ringing. For her, this is the reality of time, a construction of order. She sees how it moves us away from things, such as the woman from the window, which is open to the world, and thus keep us from seeing the world.

The old woman disappears from the window, but Clarissa is somehow still able to see her “white cap moving at the back of the bedroom.” We don’t know whether she can actually see the woman, as Clarissa seems to be imagining a lot here, but the woman is nonetheless described as “moving about at the other end of the room” and “going from chest of drawers to dressing-table.” A connection is then drawn between the moving old woman and Miss Kilman. Clarissa asks, “Why creeds and prayers and mackintoshes?” She ponders the “supreme mystery”, giving the reader the sense that Clarissa sees the world more clearly than Kilman or Peter do, who say they have solved the mystery. And what’s the mystery?

“…here was one room; there another,” writes Woolf. It’s a peculiar “supreme mystery” since it is such an ordinary observation. Clarissa is describing privacy, two rooms side by side, a wall between. Or in the case of the scene, two rooms separated by two windows, a road maybe, or a yard between her home and the old woman’s. In her mind, Clarissa’s situation is representative of the mystery; the many rooms and the many walls found in the plethora of apartment buildings and homes around the city, the country, the world. By observing a neighbor, whom she supposedly knows (though does not seem to be able to name), she comes to this conclusion that the problem she sees is the issue of private property, of opulence and material goods, such as the mackintosh– an expensive kind of coat meant to protect wearers from the elements. She sees the “rooms” of people’s lives divided by “creeds and prayers.” And, if the private rooms and many walls are the problem Clarissa notices, then she must notice the larger culprit in this issue of isolation. That is, she must see the economic machine, the capitalist system, private property and commerce; the things that move us away from the “window”, into the “back of the bedroom”, from “drawers to dressing-table.”

Clarissa longs for genuine human connection, something that seems quite foreign to her now that she has married Mr. Dalloway and succumbed to the pressures and expectations of an upper class life— one that revolves exclusively around money, privacy, power, amd reservation. Where in her childhood with Peter and Sally, two friends with whom she was closest, Clarissa was free, without them she feels she has no agency. Instead, she recognizes the corruption in her country, the loss of innocent lives in the war, the selfishness of material goods, the ignorance of those like Miss Kilman and Peter, who don’t have a “ghost of an idea” on how to see the problem, let alone solve it. She asks, “Did religion solve that,” knowing that organized religions built around money, set on constructing walls to keep congregations in and dissidents out, could never repair a broken world. Instead, she sees them as the problem. Is it love, she wonders, that can remedy the issue of isolation, a lack of human connection and understanding?

She gives no answers in this paragraph, and instead her train of thought regarding love is interrupted by the Big Ben and the errands she must run for the party. For Clarissa, even if she sees the “supreme mystery” and may not have a direct way to solve it. Yet, the only solution she is allowed to prusue in her current state and social standing is to throw a party— an event that brings people away from their rooms, out from behind their walls, and allows them to connect and converse. In essence, to love one another, if possible, and linger in each other’s company, if only for a little while.

 

Work Cited: Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt, 2002.

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