Mrs. Dalloway and Humanism

Posted: July 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Although I can get impatient with Modernist experimentation and the tricks they like to play with language (despite the fact that I wrote my PhD thesis on British Modernism), I think Mrs. Dalloway is an important text because of the way it combines these Modernist devices with a sincere and impassioned Humanism.

Humanism gets a bad rap in the academy these days.

What is Humanism? It’s basically the idea that

  1. we are all, in some significant ways, basically the same and
  2. we are all valuable and
  3. that civilization and human accomplishments are something to celebrated and
  4. things ought to get better and better for everyone if we keep our eyes on A through C.

The biggest problem people have with Humanism, of course, is A, the notion that we are all, in some ways, fundamentally the same. For the past few decades, we’ve been big on difference and diversity and the idea that we all share some common tendencies as well as interests is seen as a big imperialistic enterprise aimed at imposing one group’s version of humanity on everyone else. In other words, we are all the same because everyone, really, is like white, male, heteronormative Westerners, and, if you don’t feel like that’s who you are, well, you should, because straight white guys from Europe and American set the norm.

That, however, is one big projection from the certain schools of critical theory and Postmodernism onto the Humanistic project. To claim that, say, all human beings need to feel connected to other human beings is not exactly foisting Western prejudices on marginalized peoples.  Nor is the idea that, say, we all want to feel understood, respected, validated, or that we all have to come to terms with pain and death. It may not be true that everyone has an Oedipal attachment to their mother, but it is true that everyone has a mother (even if she is not part of your life), that everyone was born of a union of some sort between a man and a woman (for the time being anyway—who knows what the future will bring). Yes, difference is important, but so is commonality, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be hamstrung from asserting commonality because some people have been mistaken about what we have in common.

I guess no one really has a problem with B.

C, however, is made problematic by both the moral and existential relativism of Postmodernism and by, again, the assertion that when we say “civilization,” we really mean Europe and America as run by white guys.

D is made problematic by the twentieth century, which, with its two world wars, the atomic bomb, Stalin, Hitler, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot and millions and millions of people murdered by leaders who considered themselves enlightened. Looking at things from that perspective, the Enlightenment doesn’t seem so great anymore, and progress not so inevitable.

All that having been said, Humanism isn’t going anywhere just yet, and Mrs. Dalloway, perhaps, exhibits Humanism at its best.

Where do I see Humanism in Mrs. Dalloway? First of all, in the commonality of all these different characters who, despite differences of class and gender, all struggle with self-consciousness and self-doubt, who are consistently inconsistent, who yearn for approval and love from others. In short, everyone is human, vulnerable.

Related to these commonalities or maybe because of them is the fact that the novel enables us to have empathy for so many different people by getting inside their heads and seeing the world the way they do, so that we see that, for the most part, everyone is well-intentioned, which is not to say people don’t sometimes envy or even hate each other, but that there are reasons for such envy and hate and, in the case of someone like Miss Kilman, for example, the envy does her more harm than anyone else.

Related to the empathy is the refusal to cast judgment. With the possible exception of Hugh Whitbread, every character earns our sympathy and respect on some level, everyone seems to be doing their best with what they’ve been given, and everyone falls short of their own expectations. Though we may identify more with some people than others, there are no heroes and no villains in this novel.

Mrs. Dalloway herself, after all, is ripe for satire and judgement. In another writer’s hands she could have been mocked for placing so much importance on such seeming trivialities as parties and social manners. She could have been attacked for her seeming anti-intellectualism, her refusal to engage politics. She could have been painted as a hypocrite for abandoning the socialist ideals of her youth and marrying a conservative politician (and don’t get me started on what some writers would have done with Richard Dalloway!). She could have been offered up as a woman who sold out her independence for comfort, and who gave up her very self through her identification with her husband.

And it’s not like none of this would have had some truth in it. But Woolf also allows us to see Clarissa Dalloway as charming, kind, loving, as someone who does struggle with ideas despite her lifestyle choices, as a woman who is heroically taking on the challenge of conducting a life-affirming existence in the wake of the most horrible war the world had ever seen and in a world where religion no longer offers the sort of answers it once did.

She helps us to understand and love Clarissa Dalloway and so, also helps us to love ourselves because, well, in some way we are all Mrs. Dalloway. At least that’s what the Humanist in me says.

 

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