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Death, to Virginia Woolf, was not the ending of everything worth living for, but "defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate…There was an embrace in death" (Mrs. Dalloway, pg. 281). Woolf saw death as a way to make a statement and a way to maintain the integrity and worth that is essential to giving life meaning. Death was a preservative in which to submerge the person when he might be compromised by the inanities and contamination of always bending to society. In Mrs. Dalloway, a novel that reflected many elements of her life, she wrote of a character who sees in the world "beauty, exquisite beauty…languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in…inexhaustible charity and intention to provide him…with beauty, more beauty!" (Mrs. Dalloway, pg. 31) and believes that it is up to him to share the knowledge of this beauty with everyone else. His perceptions keep him from functioning normally according to the established rules of society, locking him in a world in essence of his own, that no one else sees. Finally, unable to stand the idea of the impending arrival of his psychiatrist, he jumps out the window and plunges to his death.

Sixteen years later, amid the tensions of the second global war of her lifetime and the conviction that her latest work, Between the Acts, was "too silly and trivial", she herself committed suicide by drowning. Woolf's character is a reflection of herself as much as he is a reflection of the title character, Clarissa Dalloway, who too has her own perceptions but is capable of functioning in her society. The novel is a reflection of Woolf's life, the doubles that Clarissa and Septimus play against each other the two sides of the inner conflict that determined her course.

Virginia grew up in a household that was intellectually nourishing but filled with tension. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, stifled her mother and her sister Vanessa, older brother Thoby, and younger brother Adrian. In May 1895, when Virginia was thirteen, her mother died, leaving the two sisters and two brothers to deal with their demanding father, grown stepbrothers, and stepsister, Stella Hills. "Her death," Virginia wrote in the Monk's House Papers, "was the greatest disaster that could happen." It was then that Virginia had her first mental breakdown, something that would haunt her for the rest of her life.

After Julia Stephen's death, Stella Hills took over the running of the household, filling her role with the children and taking care of Sir Leslie. Then, two years later, after a long struggle with Sir Leslie over whether she would marry and leave the Stephen home, Stella, too, died. Virginia wrote again in an early diary of the terrible experience repeated, saying that "this is one of the most terrible nights so far. No getting rid of the thought-all these ghastly preparations add to it-The people jar at every possible occasion." Virginia was not to be rid of death even then. Sir Leslie, too, slowly died, left without the doting women he so needed; his death was even more difficult for Virginia, both because of its slow progression, as if it could not quite decide whether it wanted her father or not, and because of the discord between Sir Leslie and her sister Vanessa, who was unwilling to be the devoted caretaker Julia and Stella had been. Virginia, though she recognized the unfair burdens Sir Leslie tried to place on the family, was her father's favorite, and now that she was becoming an adult, he had begun to befriend her. In a letter to Violet Dickinson in November 1903, she asked "Why must he die? And if he must why can't he?". Sir Leslie died in February of the next year, and Virginia, unable to cope with yet another death and with the obvious sense of relief and joy in her sister, had another breakdown and attempted suicide for the first time, jumping from the window of a friend's house.

And then it happened again; Thoby, the second child, adored and fought over by both Vanessa and Virginia, died of typhoid fever at the end of a trip abroad by the Stephens children and their friends. This was not just any death. Thoby was one of their own. To deal, Vanessa turned to Thoby's friend from Cambridge, Clive Bell, and soon they were engaged. Virginia, left without the two older siblings who had been her companions, had no one to turn to but Adrian, with whom she set up a home in Bloomsbury, along with some of Thoby and Adrian's Cambridge friends.

Death was not the only thing Virginia was precociously aware of. Though it may have been a function of her exposure to these traumatic events, her madness might have been intrinsic. "…she knew that she had been mad and might be mad again. To know that you have had cancer in your body and to know that it may return must be very horrible; but a cancer of the mind, a corruption of the spirit striking one at the age of thirteen and for the rest of one's life always working away somewhere, always in suspense, a Dionysian sword above one's head-this must be almost unendurable." (Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Quentin Bell, pg. 44) Both elements would dog her her entire life; she would write about them, mostly through characters in her novels, for she could not ever admit, even to herself, that she was ill-some days she would note down in her diary about her headaches, tensions, and fears, though never in great detail-and, in the end, she would act them out, unable to cope with the burden of her debilitating headaches and with the guilt of worrying her husband, family, and close friends.

In her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf includes two protagonists, one who, like her, is considered mentally disturbed and ultimately takes his own life, and one who revels in living, defying death with her success and her vivacity. The former, a young man who had fought in the War, Septimus Warren Smith, falls into a sort of madness; when faced with humanity, especially with society, he cannot tolerate it. "…he was drowned…and lying on a cliff with the gulls screaming over him. He would look over the edge of the sofa down into the sea…and the tears would run down his cheeks, which was to {Rezia, his wife} the most dreadful thing of all, to see a man like Septimus, who had fought, who was brave, crying." As he is approached by one of the stuffy doctors who think they know what is best for him and try to cure him, he hurls himself out his window and plunges to death on the spikes of a railing below. "And he was falling down, down into the flames!" (Mrs. Dalloway, pg. 213).

The title character, Clarissa Dalloway, is a fifty-year-old society woman, and on the surface Mrs. Dalloway is the story of her day as she prepares for a party. Although Clarissa only brushes against death by hearing of the stranger's suicide, what she does is to be in opposition of losing the thing which makes life such joy, the thing which would dwindle and be lost in old age. She believes herself too young for death, and in her efforts keeps it at bay. For her, Septimus' actions are not so much a giving in to death, as the preserving of "a thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved" (Mrs. Dalloway, pg. 280-281). Because her sense of youth is on such precarious ground, she could easily succumb to that kind of loss, and in that way she is as close to death as Septimus.

Virginia was caught between the introverted madness of Septimus Warren Smith and the love of life of Clarissa Dalloway. Like Septimus, her madness was a sort of vision, a way of seeing what others didn't see. And, like Septimus, she recovered briefly to have a happy, healthy period with her family before plummeting to the insanity that pressured her into taking her own life. "Her serenity," wrote Quentin Bell, "was perhaps a necessary prelude to the storm-by which I mean that the workings of Virginia's mind may have been such that she had to pass from the terror of June 1940 to the final agony of March 1941 by way of a euphoric interval, and that this may have been as much a part of her mental illness as all the rest" (Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Quentin Bell, pg. 221). Similarly, she herself wrote for Septimus a scene in which he improved in health briefly before his death: "For the first time for days he was speaking as he used to do!.. But directly he saw nothing…the cries of people seeking and not finding, and passing further and further away. They had lost him! (Mrs. Dalloway, pg. 216-220).

There were other similarities, too, such as Virginia's and Septimus' discomfort with doctors and psychiatrists. Virginia, in fact, could not write of her own illness; while she could create characters to express her feelings, in her diaries and letters she rarely wrote of her own state. "It was a symptom of Virginia's madness that she could not admit that she was mentally ill; to force this knowledge upon her was, in itself, dangerous…Virginia at once declared that there was nothing the matter with her…She was like a child being sent up to bed" (Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Quentin Bell, pg. 224-225). She asked, "Suppose he had had that passion {of the poets and the thinkers}, and had gone to Sir William Bradshaw, a great doctor yet to her obscurely evil, without sex or lust, extremely polite to women, but capable of some indescribable outrage-forcing your soul, that was it-if this young man had gone to him, and Sir William had impressed him, like that, with his power, might he not then have said (indeed she felt it now), Life is made intolerable; they make life intolerable, men like that?" (Mrs. Dalloway, pg. 281 ) Virginia and Septimus also both had caring spouses who worked constantly to keep them from their own madnesses; Virginia's second suicide note to her husband Leonard Woolf on 28 March 1941 assured him that "he had given her complete happiness. No one could have done more than he had done…that until this disease came on they were perfectly happy. It was all due to him," and Septimus' wife Lucrezia tries to follow the doctors' instructions to keep him interested in the world around him.

Virginia was like the other main character, Clarissa Dalloway, in a more positive way. Their similarities were optimistic ones rather than the hopeless likeness of Virginia's and Septimus' mental illness. First there was their mutual love of London. The first scene of Mrs. Dalloway shows Clarissa stepping out onto the London street to run errands early in the morning. "What a lark! What a plunge!...For Heaven only knows why one loves it so…what she loved; life; London; this moment of June" (Mrs. Dalloway, pg. 5). It is a celebration both of living and of the city in particular. Virginia, too, loved "…the passion of my life, that is the city of London-" (letter to Ethyl Smith, 12 September 1940).

Both Virginia and Clarissa also had romantic encounters with young women as girls, the incident in the novel probably being a conscious reproduction of the real one in Virginia's life. "Shall we say Love?" she wrote to Violet Dickinson 15 November 1906, "If you could put your hand in that nest of fur where my heart beats you would feel the thump of the steadiest organ in London-all beating for my Violet." (She also nurtured a similar friendship with Vita Sackville-West.) Indeed, a real life incident of hers did correspond to that of Clarissa's encounter with Sally Seton. The description in Mrs. Dalloway, "But the charm was overpowering, to her at least, so that she could remember standing in her bedroom at the top of the house holding the hotwater can in her hands and saying aloud, "She is beneath this roof…The whole world might have turned upside down!…And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it-a diamond, something infinitely precious…" (Mrs. Dalloway, pg. 53), could have been a description of her own experience.

Just as Mrs. Dalloway is made up, if not in plot then in detail, of descriptions of Woolf's own experiences, how she viewed death must be reflected in how she wrote of death. In her adult life she was exposed every bit as much to the death of close acquaintances as she had been in her youth. Julian Bell, her nephew, like Thoby Stephen not yet thirty, died while driving an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War. To this death Virginia responded in two ways: first, she feared the work of time on her memory of him because "I know by this time what an odd effect Time has: it does not destroy people-for instance, I still think perhaps more truly than I did, of Roger, of Thoby: but it brushes away the actual personal presence…" (30 July 1937) and second, she wondered why he felt the need to go to war, when he knew that his going worried his mother, her sister Vanessa, so much. In writing of the deaths of other friends she describes her own feelings on their dying, which seemed to show her struggle between welcoming and spurning death. "At that {the news of death} one feels-what? A shock of relief?-a rival the less? Then confusion at feeling so little-then, gradually, blankness & disappointment; then a depression which I could not rouse myself from all that day" (diary entry Tuesday 16 January, 1923). When Leonard's mother died in 1939, she wrote that "It was like watching an animal die…She wanted to live…I always notice the weather in which people die, as if the soul would notice if its wet or windy" (diary entry Monday 3 July, 1939).

In her essay "The Death of the Moth" she wrote of a living thing's struggle against death, how beautifully life can be contained in a drop of light, and how though we naturally side with the living in the end must all succumb to death. "The struggle was over…Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am" (from "The Death of the Moth", 1942). Yet she ended The Waves with a defiant declaration: "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!" (pg. 297). It is the phrase her husband would later choose for her epitaph.

In these later years, Woolf's mental illness also dogged her. She would have headaches, be shy of any social interaction, hear voices in her head. She often worried, especially right after finishing one of her books, about its quality. She would have doubts and believed that they would be failures. "I've just read my so called novel {Between the Acts} over; and I really don't think it does. Its much too slight and sketchy…I feel fairly certain it would be a mistake from all points of view to publish it," she wrote the printer, John Lehmann, on 20 March 1941. Her life became "A battle against depression, rejection…" She wrote that "This trough of despair shall not, I swear, engulf me. The solitude is great…But there is no alternative…I begin to dislike introspection…I was thinking: we live without a future. That's whats queer, with our noses pressed to a closed door" (diary entry Sunday 26 January, 1941).

The tension of the Second World War only made things worse. On top of her own struggles and conflicts came those of the outside world, seemingly apocalyptic and overwhelming. "Over all hangs war of course. A kind of perceptible but anonymous friction. Dantzig. The Poles vibrating in my room. Everything uncertain. We have got into the habit however. Work, work, I tell myself" (diary entry Wednesday 12 July, 1939). What was most destructive about this war was that "all creative power was cut off" (diary entry Sunday 26 January, 1941). Often unable to write already, Virginia was enclosed even more in her own world, frustrated and in pain, impatient of her own lack of productivity and afraid that it would only continue and grow with time.

In the end she succumbed to her madness, believing that she would never recover. To Leonard, she explained that "I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time…I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work…What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you…If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer" (suicide note to L., 18 March 1941: she wrote a similar letter on the 28th, the day she committed suicide). Similarly, to her sister, that "It is just as it was the first time, I am always hearing voices, and I know I shant get over it now…I have fought against it, but I cant any longer" (suicide note to Vanessa Bell, 23 March 1941). She had fought since she was thirteen. Now, at fifty-nine, forty-six years later, she could no longer live with her madness and knew no other way of escaping it than in death. Stressed and plagued, she walked to the river Ouse and, filling her coat pockets with stones (she had perhaps tried this once a few days earlier without stones and failed), continued to walk in until, pulled under by the heavy current, she drowned.

She had predicted her own death; not long before her suicide, she had surfaced from her madness only to be caught by it again, just as Septimus Warren Smith does in Mrs. Dalloway. The novel reflects both her desperation to control her headaches and her desire to live, to experience life, which she found always worth experiencing and recording. Like her mother-in-law, Virginia wanted to live, but was overcome by an illness she could not control. Her closeness to this illness and to the illnesses of others gave her a fascination with death, but it was a fascination that did not extend to her own desire to experience it, except as a way to relieve her suffering. "I meant to write about death," she wrote in her diary, "only life came breaking in as usual. I like, I see, to question people about death. I have taken it into my head that I shan't live till 70. Suppose, I said to myself the other day this pain over my heart suddenly wrung me out like a dish cloth & left me dead?-I was feeling sleepy, indifferent, & calm; & so thought it didn't much matter, except for L. Then, some bird or light I daresay, or waking wider, set me off wishing to live on my own-wishing chiefly to walk along the river & look at things" (diary entry Friday 17 February, 1922). Recorded in her diaries, letters, and novels, then, is Woolf's true suicide note, a message beginning even as her madness first began, the chronicle of her efforts to not want to die. She wished to say that death was not truly giving in, however, that it was not just an unfortunate accident everyone was fated to eventually face. In dying, she preserved, as Clarissa feels Septimus does, that thing which makes life worth living, for Virginia a personal sanity that for Septimus and Clarissa is a social sanity.

"Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!" The Waves pg. 297

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