02 February, 2011
Forbe's “Equating Performance with Identity: The Failure of Clarissa Dalloway’s Victorian ‘Self’ in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.”
What a pretentiously-titled essay, no? Forbes concentrates on the tension between private identity and the performance of a public role as it plays out in this day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. Buying unquestioningly into her role as hostess, her day regulated by the demanding chimes of the Big Ben clocktower, Clarissa makes the error of equating her performance with identity, Forbes argues. The essay places much interpretive weight upon her occasionally-mentioned wish that everyone could “merely be themselves,” pointing out that her failure to pursue romance in the person of Peter Walsh, is an instance of her not being herself. Because personal desire conflicts with her social role, she is not, she believes, a unified self, as the Victorian aesthetic of her patriarchal society demands that she be. In pursuit of such unity, she substitutes role-playing for individuality, allowing the former state to dominate the latter impulse and decomplexify her identity. The essay makes in passing some valid points about individual symbols occurring throughout the novel (Big Ben, the streets of London), and some good observations about Clarissa’s thought process. But in seeing her as an essentially “failed” character, who has caved to the demands of a patriarchal society while ignoring all of the moments when Woolf emphasizes the ethically-oriented aspect of being a hostess, of trying to bring others into a temporary community, the essay makes essentially the same error it accuses Mrs. Dalloway of committing. Extrapolating a single, supposedly definitive, feminist interpretation of the novel from a few observations, it fails to see Woolf’s novel in the full complexity it deserves.