In this essay, I discuss Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf; 1925) and The Outsider (Albert Camus; 1942). In particular, I focus on (i) Woolf’s shell-shocked soldier Septimus, and (ii) Camus’ protagonist Meursault. I identify elements of dislocation, ambivalence and isolation in both (modernist) texts. I also identify different narrative techniques and discuss their effectiveness. We can understand isolation in terms of two historical factors. First, World War I was responsible for alienation as well as for breaking down barriers to democracy. Second, intellectual advances (e.g. Einstein’s theory of Relativity and Freud’s work on the subconscious) placed emphasis on the individual as an agent of change.
1. Mrs Dalloway
Septimus fought in World War I. When he returns, he no longer identifies with his city and shell-shock slowly takes hold. Septimus finally decides to kill himself. Woolf describes how the upper-class society in London responds to Septimus. They view him as an outsider, apparently due in part to his hazel eyes, which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too (Woolf 1996; 17).
Woolf captures the sense of isolation by adopting the stream of consciousness technique. This technique is characterized by long passages of introspection, in which the narrator records in detail what passes through a character’s awareness (Abrams 1999; 298). We know from A Modern Fiction (1919) that Woolf herself aspired to represent the flurry of thoughts and feelings that might pass through a person’s head on any one day. We can argue that this narrative technique creates a division between the internal and the external. Consider the passage below, where external observations are placed in brackets.
She must go up to Lady Bradshaw (in grey and silver, balancing like a sea-lion at the edge of its tank, barking for invitations, Duchesses, the typical successful man’s wife), she must go up to Lady Bradshaw and say . . . (Woolf 1996; 222)
(In the case of Mrs Dalloway, the stream of consciousness technique is especially effective because the narrators are unreliable.)
The novel ends before Clarissa and Peter can be reunited and so the reader must decide for him or herself what happens. The novel does end, however, with Clarissa’s epiphany. Clarissa makes a sudden and conscious decision to continue living in spite of her troubled life. The reader will notice that Septimus faced a similar decision and chose to end his life. Perhaps each of us has to make this same decision at one point in our lives. The choice is to battle on with disappointment (like Clarissa) or to be beaten under the weight of existence (like Septimus).
2. The Outsider
Albert Camus’ The Outsider begins with the famous line: Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know (Camus 2000: 9). The protagonist Meursault feels no guilt at confining his mother to a nursing home and he shows no visible signs of emotion when his mother dies. At the end of Camus’ novella, Meursault experiences an epiphany (like Clarissa). He comes to the conclusion that life is worth living, despite it being incomprehensible. This epiphany comes too late for Meursault, however, who is sentenced to death for the killing of an Arabic man.
Meursault does not seem to live in the moment: he rids himself of any responsibility to those around him. This means that he is brutally honest to the people he comes into contact with, in particular his girlfriend. He reacts with indifference when he is offered a promotion (I said yes but I didn’t really mind: Camus 2000: 44) and he admits that he would be happy to marry any woman and not just his girlfriend (ibid: 44).
We all desire clarity, order and permanence, but we find . . . opacity, dispersity, and the certainty of our own morality and thus ephemerality. (Davison 1988; 7)
Camus is most often associated with the Absurdism movement. We can understand this movement in terms of a confrontation between what we desire from the world and the reality that we find (Davison 1988). The novella is split into two parts. The first is akin to a diary, in which Meursault records events. The second is a reflection and reaction to the first. We cannot fully trust Meursault as a narrator: after all, he stands accused of murder and he may not be totally honest about his recollections. The style of the novella (i.e. American Neo-Realist) helps to reinforce this idea. There are few clausal conjunctions and the main clauses are joined together in unexplained succession (ibid: 30).
There are clear parallels between Mrs Dalloway and The Outsider. For example, there is a sense in which both Clarissa and Meursault are awaiting death. Clarissa reflects on her life and comes to the conclusion that it qualifies as absurd. But she nevertheless condemns Septimus for taking his own life. Meursault is condemned to death in a more literal sense. Not only do Clarissa and Septimus both overlook a window while contemplating death; Clarissa and Meursault share the opportunity to reflect on their lives and to reach the similar conclusion that it is necessary to live in the present.
But Clarissa and Meursault lead very different lives. Consider that Clarissa decides to host a dinner party. The dinner party (with all of its associated nostalgia) acts as a microcosm for the entire novel. In other words, Clarissa is never content to live in the present, or even the future. She chooses instead to rehash the past. She does not conform to Camus’ version of an absurd individual because of her insincerity. Remember that Clarissa intends to hold the dinner party in order to show off a veneer of mental health and optimism.
Clarissa and Meursault struggle to live contented lives in response to uncertainty and to the apparent absence of meaning. Woolf chooses to juxtapose Clarissa’s inner-struggle with the tragic story of Septimus in order to foreshadow the theme of death. That is to say, Clarissa must confront her own mortality and experience an epiphany. Meursault is the epitome of moral ambivalence and social dislocation. He is unable to make living in the present his priority and he seemed (before his epiphany) to focus on either the past or the future.
Einstein’s theory of General Relativity (1916) and Freud’s work on the subconscious both placed the emphasis firmly on the individual. This work paved the way for disconnect between individuals and the legal / political apparatus that serves them. This theme is prevalent in Camus’ novella, as is the more general struggle to continue living in an absurd society. In Mrs. Dalloway, suicide is as a logical solution to the madness Septimus endures from existence. Conversely, suicide was, for Camus, an act of submission that is most illogical in the face of a Godless existence. Both protagonists learn (by epiphany) to live in the moment.
Camus, A., 2000). The Outsider. Translated from French by J, Laredo. UK: Penguin Classics
Davison, J., 1988. Introduction: the Algerian Years in Camus, A., 1988. L’Etranger. UK: Routledge
Isaacs, A., 2010. Allan’s Virtual Radio Museum.
Thompson, M., 2006.Teach Yourself: Philosophy. UK: Hodder Headline
Woolf, V., 1919. The Modern Fiction. seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/CziganyikZsolt/modernfiction.doc
Woolf, V., 1996. Mrs. Dalloway. UK: Penguin Popular Classics