The Pursuit of the Essence of Consciousness in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse

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What Are We Doing Here?:
The Pursuit of the Essence of Consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse
In her novels Woolf examines the relationships and inner-workings of people's minds and how these portrayals are connected to Woolf's own ideals regarding life and death. In two of her most popular novels, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, Woolf examines these issues, leaving the paramount investigation of life unanswered and leaving the reader with the ability to form their own ultimate judgment. In order to find answers to this, her ultimate question, we must search through her recurring themes to interpret our own vision of Woolf's views on the main aspects of life as we know it. This paper will demonstrate how Woolf explored the meaning of life and death within the inner thoughts and relationships of her characters and how she used ambiguous characters to demonstrate the need for a balance in one's relationship with the self and with others in order to truly find happiness in life.

In Mrs. Dalloway, the issue of life and death in cooperation with the character's emotional and mental inner-workings is a prominent theme. Woolf addresses the meaning of life and how one should live theirs, as well as how one should not. Woolf balances the importance of individual self and the dissemination of that individual's self among others within a cast of interconnected characters. The question of life and death is repeatedly explored through Clarissa, Peter, and Septimus- often in a more connected way that one might notice during a first reading. In “Walking the Web in the Lost London of Mrs. Dalloway”, Andelys Wood suggests that “The challenge to readers is that the reality...time in the mind and time on the clock, the experiences of the writer, characters, and readers, all are connected by the novel's web” (19). In the novel's opening Clarissa is walking through town to buy flowers for her party. She puzzles over the meaning of our own being and the sure inevitability of death while juxtaposing these ideas with her own superficial worries about her stately dinner engagement. Her fusing of the two ideas into one inner conversation becomes the proposed hypothesis throughout the rest of the work, the inner-connectedness of all people. In chapter one, Woolf writes, “somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself” (9). This statement, this idea of being constantly a part in others lives while holding onto some sense of autonomy, becomes the proposition on which Woolf's philosophy on the meaning of life and death begins.

The emphasis of being in tune with others while imposing the importance of the individual self is shown foremost through Woolf's heroine, Clarissa Dalloway. It is made clear through her character the importance of the privacy of emotions; however, Clarissa also explores the healthy balance of this privacy in conjunction with the societal norms her characters are subjected to. Woolf imagines Clarissa Dalloway as a middle-aged woman who is outwardly very happy with her choice to have married Richard Dalloway, a conservative government official and an obvious manifestation of the era’s constrictive conservative government. Clarissa is dependent on Richard, both emotionally and financially. In “Nature and the Nation in Mrs. Dalloway”, Melissa Bagley notices that “Many of her characters employ metaphors that equate women with that which is delicate, depicting the woman described as necessarily dependent” (38). Clarissa is the perfect opposite of this notion. While Clarissa...
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