Mystical Motifs in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
The scholarship surrounding Woolf’s mysticism by and large focuses on a psychoanalytical approach. While this paper will somewhat attempt to move away from a psychoanalytical methodology, it is valuable to examine the existing scholarship and the departures from this approach. Within this theoretical structure, the critical discussion further breaks down into two separate, though not incompatible, groups: those who see Woolf’s use of mysticism as a feminist statement and those who see Woolf as a mystic. I contend that both perspectives are valid and are inherent in Woolf’s application of mystical motifs, particularly in Mrs. Dalloway.
Val Gough in his article “With Some Irony in Her Interrogation: Woolf’s Ironic Mysticism” makes an argument for Woolf’s ironic use of mysticism in her works as a feminist statement. Through various syntactical subtleties, Gough points out areas in Woolf’s work where “the mystic quest for truth [is portrayed] in a subtly skeptical manner” (Gough 86). Gough extends her use of irony to examine how it serves “to de-naturalize the relationship between text and reader, to make it overtly complex and problematic” (88). He contends that irony, in operating between the reader and the text, serves to break down, to some extent, the “stability of the sign and of supposed ‘absolute’ truth” (88). Ultimately, he concludes that “Woolf’s ironic mysticism…necessarily involves a feminist challenging of rigid structures of phallic (and imperialist) power, thus making it a mysticism of subversive, politically critical, feminist irony” (89).
Gough’s particular approach is interesting because it contends that an ironic mysticism is inherently politicized and specifically feminist. Furthermore, unlike the rest of the critical works under discussion, it does not use a psychoanalytical approach to the text and Woolf as a historical figure is nearly absent from the text. Gough establishes the feminism of Woolf’s ironic mysticism firmly as an aspect of the mystical encounters themselves.
Though not directly addressing the issue of mysticism, Susan Bennett Smith’s “Reinventing Grief Work: Virginia Woolf’s Feminist Representations of Mourning in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse” provides an important link between Woolf’s mysticism and Woolf’s politics. Of particular interest is Smith’s analysis of Septimus as a figure of male mourning. She identifies “Septimus’s mourning [as] pathological” (Smith 313). The paper focuses on the differences inherent in a gendered mourning, reflecting back upon how both Virginia and Leslie Stephen death with the death of Virginia’s mother. “Assum[ing] a causal link between grief and madness without any analysis or explicit justification,” Virginia was subjected to the rest cure, as Septimus is to undergo at the time of his suicide. Unlike Virginia (and Clarissa), Septimus “has internalized an excess of stoicism in the Great War, he reacts by...