ENG 362 Essay
The idea of the individual versus society has been explored throughout centuries of writing. From Emerson, to Thoreau, to Bronte, to many others, it is a universal struggle to have to choose between living freely and being affected by the conventions and demands of everyday society. Virginia Woolf addresses these ideas throughout her novels and short stories. Her writings sometimes reflect her own views and struggles as she grappled with these issues. Through Mrs. Dalloway and Monday or Tuesday, Woolf shows that societal norms and pressures act as a distraction from an individual’s pursuits of truth and happiness.
Woolf’s short story, Monday or Tuesday, is nested in a progression that leads the narrator away from the initial goal. During the onset of the story, the narrator clearly desires Truth, it is the foremost concern, and one that is constantly on their mind:
“Desiring truth, awaiting it, laboriously distilling a few words, for ever desiring —(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)— for ever desiring —(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm)— for ever desiring truth. Red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry “Iron for sale”— and truth?” (Monday or Tuesday)
This passage is significant for a number of reasons. To begin with, it makes it apparent that the narrator’s main goal is to seek truth; it is something that he “forever desires”. The parenthetical thoughts that seem to constantly interject the writing are pivotal as well. Parenthetical thoughts are often used to introduce secondary thoughts- something supplementary, an addition to what is already being said, but not quite as important. As such, the parenthetical thoughts in this passage are secondary to what is being said about truth. The secondary thoughts however, seem to be completely unrelated to the narrator’s primary concern. They describe sounds of urban life, or other background noise that are seemingly happening around the narrator while he is thinking these thoughts about truth. In many ways, these parenthetical thoughts almost act as distractions; they are the happenings of narrator’s surroundings as the seep into his thoughts while he attempts to contemplate on truth. There is a tension created between the primary and secondary thoughts that the narrator experiences that is most evident in the second line: “forever desiring- (The clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm) - forever desiring truth.” Here, the primary thought about forever desiring truth struggles to finish as the narrator’s mind is flooded with observations about his surroundings. It’s almost as though the two thoughts are fighting for predominance, dictating what observations will dominate the narrators mind. The fact that the distractions are fragments of the narrator’s external environment, of the society he is a part of, is significant. It suggests that the things that impede the narrator’s contemplation on what he forever desires are society itself.
As the short story progresses, the narrator’s thoughts continue to be impeded with observations of society. The impeding thoughts, however, are no longer parenthetical secondary thoughts, they assume more dominance in the narrator’s mind: “Flaunted, leaf — light, drifting at corners, blown across the wheels, silver-splashed, home or not home, gathered, scattered, squandered in separate scales, swept up, down, torn, sunk, assembled — and truth?” (Monday or Tuesday). In this passage, the observations of the narrator’s surrounding environment no longer take a backseat to the thoughts on truth. Rather, they dominate the narrator’s mind and assume a level of equal importance. In fact, in many ways, the desire for truth is almost pushed to the side. By ending the passage with “- and truth?” as a question, the tone of the desire for truth changes. In the beginning of the short story, the desire for truth seems to have a strong constitution, there is no question about it, it is the primary concern. As the story progresses, however, truth is always ended with a question mark, as if to question whether it will ever be found, as though it is pushed to the side in the wake of the distractions that society presents.
Ultimately, the short story ends in a state of apathy. Truth is no longer a primary concern for the narrator, as he settles for something else: “Fallen the book; in the flame, in the smoke, in the momentary sparks — or now voyaging, the marble square pendant, minarets beneath and the Indian seas, while space rushes blue and stars glint — truth? Content with closeness?” (Monday or Tuesday). The last paragraph of Woolf’s short story is revealing. Not only are the parenthetical thoughts no longer secondary thoughts, but the narrator ends the paragraph with “- truth? Content with closeness?” As mentioned before, the question mark after truth suggests a doubt as to whether or not this desire will be pursued. By following that up with “content with closeness?” the narrator is almost settling for something else, something close to truth, but not quite what his initial desire was. The act of settling represents the triumph of the distraction, the triumph of society over the individual. All through the story, the individual’s desires are fighting for dominance over the observations of society, the fact that the thoughts about society prevail and force the narrator to “settle for closeness”, displays society’s triumph.
The idea of society acting as a distraction that triumphs over individuals is evident in Woolf’s novels as well, particularly in Mrs. Dalloway. The character of Septimus exemplifies the constant struggle between societal influences and individual desires:
Men must not cut down trees. There is a God. (He noted such revelations on the backs of envelopes.) Change the world. No one kills from hatred. Make it known (he wrote it down). He waited. He listened. A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death. There was his hand; there the dead. White things were assembling behind the railings opposite. But he dared not look. Evans was behind the railings! "What are you saying?" said Rezia suddenly, sitting down by him. Interrupted again! She was always interrupting” (Mrs. Dalloway)
In this passage, Woolf chronicles Septimus’s thoughts. Similar to Monday or Tuesday, he contemplates many things, but it is always in his own mind. Septims constantly attempts to sift through his own thoughts to make sense of the world he is a part of. This, however, is an individual process, it doesn’t involve Rezia or anyone else, but an endeavor that Septimus undertakes himself. Yet, he is again distracted by his external environment as he claims, “Interrupted again! She was always interrupting.” Here, Rezia represents society as a whole. Prior to Septimus’s suicide, she attempts to rehabilitate him, she treats him the same way as Dr. Holmes and others in hopes of helping him become “normal” rather than trying to understand and sympathize with his mindset. As such, her actions are representative of society, and by being the source of the interruption in this scene, Woolf adeptly shows again that society acts as a distraction to the individual’s desires.
The distractions that society creates for Septimus force him to make a crucial choice: whether to live life on his terms, or succumb to conventions society demands. In the end, Septimus opts to maintain his individuality:
“So he was in their power! Holmes and Bradshaw were on him! The brute with the red nostrils was snuffing into every secret place!.. Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door. Holmes would say "In a funk, eh?" Holmes would get him. But no; not Holmes; not Bradshaw. Getting up rather unsteadily, hopping indeed from foot to foot, he considered Mrs. Filmer's nice clean bread knife with "Bread" carved on the handle. It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia's (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing. (He sat on the sill.) But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings--what did they want?” (Mrs. Dalloway)
This passage is significant for a number of reasons. To begin with, the opening line shows the struggle that Septimus endures. Holmes and Bradshaw represent the societal forces that attempt to normalize an individual, the very forces that try to “civilize” people. On the other hand, Septimus epitomizes the individual, he represents the outlier, the individual who seeks to follow his own desires, but is constantly distracted and thwarted by societal forces with opposing goals. As such, Septimus is caught at a crossroads where he must choose between his individuality and his desires, or giving in to the forces that aim to distract his efforts. His suicide, however, is not a escape or a result of the pressures that surround him. In the end, his death is his attempt at following his desires, of not being chained to the expectations and rules that others place on him. By claiming that “It was their idea of tragedy, not his”, Septimus shows that his death wasn’t a mistake or a sad event, it was quite the contrary. It was freedom, freedom to choose his way and control how his life was led.
The similarities between Monday or Tuesday and Mrs. Dalloway are apparent. Both the stories grapple with the individuals desire to pursue their own desires- in Monday or Tuesday, the desire is to contemplate on truth, while in Mrs .Dalloway, the desire is to live a kind of life that makes an individual happy, as exemplified through Septimus. In both the stories, the characters attempt to ward of the distractions that society creates for them, whether it be a passive distraction through the existence of urban society, or through an active distraction from individuals attempting to mold an individual into their sense of the world without sympathizing with them to understand their true predicament. Ultimately, Woolf displays possibilities of the effect that society may have on the individual- in Monday or Tuesday, the individual’s desires are pushed to the side, while in Mrs. Dalloway, the only way the individual is able to live freely is by choosing his method of dying.
Yet, what is evident through Woolf’s works is that her view on society is a negative one. Throughout her works it is evident that society is a deterrent, a distraction, an obstacle that hinders individuals from their own lives and strips way their freedom to pursue their own desires. If this is the case, however, it begs the question, how is an individual supposed to live? The options that Woolf presents are bleak at best: either settle for a life of regret, or choose death. It is tough to discern whether there is a way to overcome societal demands in Woolf’s worldview.
Through her writing, Woolf displays that societal norms prove to be a hindrance to an individual’s desires. She displays this through the narrator in Monday or Tuesday, and through the character of Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway. In many ways, Woolf’s novels reflect the struggles she had to overcome in her own life. her desire to break free from the distractions and pressures that society demands, her desire to live her life on her terms. Through her writing, we catch a glimpse of the issues she contemplated and attempted to overcome. her struggle is one that plagues many, but as a writer and an intellectual, one that plagued her to a greater extent.