The Kiss of a Wave, the Caress of the Sea: Sexual Fluidity in Mrs. Dalloway

Michael Schrimper

Photo: Public Domain

 

Scholars have long considered Septimus Warren Smith a character likely repressing his homosexuality.[1] Historically, it is the characterization of Septimus’s relationship with his senior officer, Evans, which suggests this reading (Krouse 15). It should be considered, however, how language associated with Septimus—as well as, at times, his wife and Mrs. Dalloway—pertains to fluidity, or water, as though Woolf were suggesting his sexuality is not merely “homosexual” or “heterosexual,” but something in flux. This article approaches the concept of sexual fluidity in Mrs. Dalloway by reading for fluidity literally, noting how Woolf explicitly connects Septimus and Mrs. Dalloway to imagery of water and verbs which suggest water, movement and a lack of stability.

Sexual fluidity has been defined as “changes over time in attractions and sexual orientation identity” (Katz-Wise 1459). A more in-depth definition characterizes a “situation-dependent flexibility in sexual responsiveness which may manifest in changes in sexual orientation identity over time, with sexual responsiveness further operationalized as attractions.” Important to note here is the element of time, how time influences fluidity: whereas at one point in her life, a female might identify as completely heterosexual and experience attractions only toward males, later she might identify as bisexual after recognizing attractions toward both females and males (Katz-Wise 1459). This “later”—the fact that, with time, both her sexual attractions and sexual self-identification has changed—is crucial when it comes to understanding sexual fluidity. Traditionally, models of sexual orientation identity development hypothesized that an individual’s sexual orientation forms “prior to adolescence and remains stable over time” (Katz-Wise 1459). Recent research on the concept of sexual fluidity, however, contests these models: findings suggest that fluidity or transformation in sexual attraction over time is common in both females and males. In addition, individual sexual orientation identity and attitudes about sexuality in general are shown to fluctuate over time, not limiting the changes to the realm of attractions (Katz-Wise 1459-61).

Mrs. Dalloway, famously, is a novel in which time is a key figure: “The leaden circles dissolved in the air” reappears throughout the book. Yet the book also features much language pertaining to fluidity. Reading Septimus Warren Smith as homosexual seems not to account for the manifest content of fluidity which surrounds him. Through Septimus’s eyes, the world “waver(s)” and “quiver(s)” (Mrs. Dalloway [MD] 21). It has a “surface” (MD 21). Septimus conceives of himself as a “drowned sailor, on the shore of the world” (MD 140), as a “drowned sailor on a rock” (MD 104). He thinks how he “leant over the edge of the boat and fell down […] under the sea” (MD 104). During the aeroplane scene, Septimus notes the smoke words in the sky “languishing” and “melting” as “tears” stream “down his cheeks” (MD 31). Significantly, the wedding ring Septimus has given Lucrezia “slip[s]” (MD 34). Waves of sound “run” up into his brain (MD 32). In Regent’s Park, just before experiencing a vision of his deceased senior officer, he sees (in his mind) a “river” (MD 36)—traditionally a symbol for life but here interpretable as a symbol for flux, motion and the very embodiment of fluidity. In arguing that Septimus is repressing his homosexuality, scholars are focusing on Septimus’s sexual behavior (the aforementioned behavior with Evans), not his sexual orientation identity (scholars are not arguing that Septimus perceives himself as homosexual, rather that he has engaged in homosexual behavior), and ignoring the characterization of fluidity suggestive of his sexuality.

The most suggestive of passages pertaining to Septimus and Evans appears only paragraphs away from descriptions of Septimus feeling a “fire” for and “dream[ing]” of his female teacher, Miss Isabel Pole (MD 128). Shortly before Septimus is characterized as “playing” with Evans as two dogs play on a hearth-rug, Septimus is characterized as being “in love with Miss Isabel Pole,” thinking her “beautiful” (MD 128). With Evans, Septimus “blink[s] at the fire […], turn[s] and growl[s] good-temperedly” (MD 130); for Miss Pole he feels “such a fire as burns once only in a lifetime” (MD 128). Fire may be diametrically opposed to water, however it is a flickering, amorphous entity, one that physically is akin to water in its malleability. Furthermore, by positioning Septimus’s passion for his female teacher directly alongside his “affection” for his male senior officer and describing both attractions in relation to fire, Woolf highlights the liquid, malleable nature of Septimus’s desire. At one point in his life, he was attracted to a woman; at another point, a man.

The aforementioned wedding ring’s connection to fluidity suggests Lucrezia’s sense of her husband’s sexual fluidity. It seems Lucrezia in fact is aware of and challenged by said fluidity: “She spread her hand before her. Look! Her wedding ring slipped—she had grown so thin. It was she who suffered—but she had nobody to tell” (MD 34). In the same scene, Lucrezia cries, “I am alone; I am alone!” while staring into the “fountain” in Regent’s Park (MD 35). It is a walk to this fountain—obviously a site of water—which physically separates Lucrezia and Septimus in the park: “‘I am going to walk to the fountain and back,”’ Lucrezia says, for “[s]he could not sit beside him” any longer (MD 33). Through Septimus’s eyes, meanwhile, his wife is “pale, mysterious, like a lily, drowned, under water” (MD 134). So we see how this marriage is defined by liquidity. It is fluidity (Septimus’s, one can infer) that is creating a sense of distance between these two characters.

Ultimately, Septimus claims his own life, flinging himself from his and Lucrezia’s window (MD 226). Tellingly, a flood of memories then washes over Lucrezia: she recalls a flag “rippling,” “rain falling,” “the caress of the sea” (MD 227-28). Now in a half-conscious state, Lucrezia envisions a location “near the sea,” where there are “ships” and “gulls.” She feels herself “strewn” and “laid on shore” (MD 228). Lucrezia continues connecting her (now-deceased) husband to fluidness and liquidity. Even in memoriam, Septimus is characterized by water.

For Mrs. Dalloway, it is a “hot-water can” she holds in her hands as, unable to contain her passion, she exclaims of her “love” Sally Seton: “She is beneath this roof…. She is beneath this roof!” (MD 51). Years later, when Sally Seton arrives at her party, Mrs. Dalloway thinks: “One might put down the hot water can quite composedly. The lustre had gone out of her” (MD 260). For Mrs. Dalloway, “the words [‘She is beneath this roof!’] meant absolutely nothing to her now. She could not even get an echo of her old emotion. But she could remember going cold with excitement, and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy” (MD 51). Time has changed Mrs. Dalloway’s feelings towards Sally Seton, her level of attraction for the woman. Once, while Sally Seton was under the same “roof” (MD 51) as Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway was in “love” with her (MD 48). Now, Sally Seton is again under the same roof, however, this time, the attraction on part of Mrs. Dalloway is not there. “Love,” of course, is not synonymous with sexual attraction, and indeed Mrs. Dalloway tries to tell herself that her feelings for Sally were never sexual. “The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested” (MD 50). Mrs. Dalloway, however, connects Sally to “ecstasy” (MD 51) and she cherishes their physical contact, their kiss (MD 52-53). Time has altered Mrs. Dalloway’s attraction.

For Mrs. Dalloway, sexual feelings take on a liquid quality, as if she perceives sexuality itself as a liquid:

It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores! (MD 47)

Sexual rapture, for Mrs. Dalloway, is a “pressure” which “gush[es]” and “pour[s].” It “spread[s]” as the one feeling it “rushe[s].” The fact that her feelings in such moments are sexually “fluid” is highlighted by the fact that Mrs. Dalloway considers these sexual feelings “what men felt” (MD 47). Such a phrase indicates that Mrs. Dalloway fluidly slips into another realm of attraction, one which is not heterosexual and which is not the one in which she typically operates.

[Y]et she could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as to her they often did, some scrape, some folly. And whether it was pity, or their beauty, or that she was older, or some accident—like a faint scent, or a violin next door (so strange is the power of sounds at certain moments), she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough. (MD 47)

Only “at certain moments” does Mrs. Dalloway feel sexual attraction towards women; “Only for a moment” does she “sometimes” yield to the charms of a woman (MD 46-47). This variability—this “sometimes”—directly corresponds to the definition of sexual fluidity as being a “situation-dependent flexibility in responsiveness” (Katz-Wise 1459), or a sexuality which fluctuates.

Thus it is fitting that, like Septimus, Mrs. Dalloway is characterized by water and language pertaining to fluidity. Lady Bruton asking Richard to lunch without her makes her “rock” and “shiver” like a plant in a “river-bed” (MD 44). She feels herself lacking “something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman” (MD 46). Mrs. Dalloway “ha[s] a perpetual sense…of being out, out, far out to sea and alone” (MD 11). Perhaps it is her non-traditional, non-hetero sexuality which makes her feel “alone.”

Moments before Peter interrupts her with a surprise visit, Mrs. Dalloway is mending the dress she intends to wear to her party:

Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. […] Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking. (MD 59)

The dress under Mrs. Dalloway’s hands takes on an almost liquid form, drawing together then smoothing out as waves do in the sea. The dress echoes the wedding ring as an object which, having come into contact with a sexually fluid character, embodies fluidity itself. The location of this passage in the novel serves as a bridge between Mrs. Dalloway’s thoughts about Sally Seton, and the physical presence of Peter Walsh. This passage fraught with images of fluidity moves readers along, in a stream of consciousness, from Mrs. Dalloway’s passion for Sally Seton to her passion for Peter Walsh. “[T]he body alone listens to the […] wave breaking,” Mrs. Dalloway thinks, just before she hears the front-door bell (MD 59), Peter rushes in to see her, and she finds him “enchanting” (MD 63). Mrs. Dalloway, who shortly before was remembering “the most exquisite moment of her whole life,” “alone with Sally” (MD 52), asks Peter if he remembers “the lake” (MD 63), and this causes “something” to rise “to the surface,” “something which hurt [Peter] as it rose” (MD 64). Just as Woolf positions Septimus’s recollections of Miss Isabel Pole alongside his recollections of Evans, thus highlighting the liquid nature of his desire, she places Mrs. Dalloway’s recollections of Sally Seton alongside the physical presence of Peter Walsh. The tendency of Mrs. Dalloway’s attractions to change is demonstrated in the fact that, while thinking of Sally Seton in her husband’s house, her old suitor appears and makes her cry (“she wiped her eyes” [MD 64]) for the memories of their “love” (MD 67).

The love song being sung by the woman opposite the Regent’s Park tube station augments the theme of sexual fluidity, for the singing woman herself is described as a “rusty pump,” and her voice seems to be “bubbling up” (MD 122). The old woman’s voice is that of “an ancient spring sprouting up from the earth” and her love song is a “bubbling burbling song, soaking through the knotted roots of infinite ages.” It “streams away in rivulets,” leaving a “damp stain” (MD 122-23). The song is significant because it is a song of passion, in particular one about “a man who had loved” the singer (MD 124). The singer had once walked with this man in a place where “the sea flows now,” but the man’s individual identity does not matter; what matters is that he had loved her (MD 124). The love song echoes both Septimus’s and Mrs. Dalloway’s fluidity of desire. Desire is the “eternal spring” which “soak(s) and steep(s)” and then carries on “without direction” (MD 122-24).

It has been argued that Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus Smith represent two sides of a duality, so it is important to note that a characterization pertaining to water and fluidity is another element which unites them. Both conceive of humanity in relation to water: Mrs. Dalloway perceives humankind in “nautical metaphors,” considering us a “doomed race, chained to a sinking ship” (MD 117). Septimus considers people as having “no lasting emotions,” “eddying […] now this way, now that” (MD 135). While Septimus, in death, may have passed outside of humanity, over to a “river where the dead walk” (MD 36), Mrs. Dalloway—still living—appears to have passed on her fluidity to her daughter: “she was like a river,” Willie Titcomb, a guest at Mrs. Dalloway’s party, thinks of Elizabeth (MD 287). Indeed, admirers compare Elizabeth Dalloway to “running water” (MD 204). Despite their ultimately differing fates, Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith are bound by a characterization of fluidity, being characters “eddying” “now this way, now that” in terms of sexual attraction.

 

[1] Scholars who reference Septimus’s homosexuality include Patricia Morgne Cramer, Kristin Czarnecki, Tonya Krouse, and Jesse Wolfe.

 

Works Cited

Cramer, Patricia Morgne. “Virginia Woolf and Sexuality.” The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf: Second Edition. Ed. Susan Sellers. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. 180-96.

Czarnecki, Kristin. “Melted Flesh and Tangled Threads: War Trauma and Modes of Healing in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.” Woolf Studies Annual 21: (2015): 50-77. <libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=ecl_main&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA410506486&it=r&asid=070dc7577fbece5e0f2a362bd9516cb3>. 28 January 17.

Hoff, Molly. “Ornithology in Mrs. Dalloway: A Touch of the Bird.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 89 and 90 (Spring and Fall 2016): 25-26.

Katz-Wise, Sabra L. and Janet S. Hyde. “Sexual Fluidity and Related Attitudes and Beliefs Among Young Adults with a Same-Gender Orientation.” Sexual Behavior 44 (2015): 1459-70.

Krouse, Tonya. “Sexual Deviancy in Mrs. Dalloway: The Case of Septimus Smith.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 70: (Fall 2006): 15-16. <http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/37768842/woolf.pdfAWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1487002255&Signature=6v851daDUTw%2F5e%2FxNEp3ORcjT6A%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DNarrative_Techniques_in_Woolfs_To_the_Li.pdf>. 28 January 2017.

Wolfe, Jesse. “The Sane Woman in the Attic: Sexuality and Self-Authorship in Mrs. Dalloway.” Modern Fiction Studies 51.1 (2005): 34-59. <https://muse-jhu-edu.proxy.emerson.edu/article/180809>. 20 November 2016.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. New York: Harcourt, 1953.

 

 

Provenance: Double-blind peer-reviewed submission.

 

Michael R. Schrimper is affiliated faculty in the Writing, Literature & Publishing department of Emerson College, Boston. His research on Virginia Woolf appears or is forthcoming in the Virginia Woolf Miscellany and the Journal of Modern Literature. Schrimper has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Scholar.

 

 

 

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