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Taking the Doors off the Hinges: Liminal Space in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

Kristina Groover

“But, she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.” Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

While writing Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary a now-famous account of her “discovery; how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters . . . The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment . . .” (Woolf, Diary 2, 263). This geographic metaphor illuminates a novel greatly concerned with human geography and with the capacity for spaces to either unite or divide people. The idea that people are completed by their relationships with others, and even by their connection to places, is pervasive in Mrs Dalloway. In this novel, as elsewhere in her writing, Woolf observes and critiques ways in which landscapes reinforce boundaries of class and gender. The novel’s London landscape is replete with geographic spaces that are inhabited differently by women and men, by the wealthy and the poor; geographies are used to reinforce dichotomies of public and private, past and present, sacred and ordinary. Woolf’s image of the hidden cave connecting her characters, however, creates a subversive subtext for the precisely mapped text of Mrs Dalloway. The network of subterranean caves suggests a level of experience and connection that is undetectable at street level. Woolf creates various liminal geographic spaces that transcend boundaries and create connections between characters who ordinarily inhabit disparate landscapes. These connections are revealed most dramatically within the festival space of Clarissa’s party, when she experiences a mystical alliance with Septimus, a suicidal young man whom she has never met.

The London through which Woolf’s characters walk is replete with symbols of authority: Westminster, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the royal parks. As Yi-Fu Tuan points out in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, such geographic markers are “centers of value” signifying a culture’s acknowledgment of power, legitimacy, and sacredness. These geographic signifiers, Tuan points out, “attract or repel in finely shaded degrees. To attend to them even momentarily is to acknowledge their reality and value” (17-18). Throughout Mrs Dalloway, the authoritative notes of Big Ben divide Clarissa’s private experience of time, which fluctuates seamlessly between past and present, from the “irrevocable” passage of public time (4). The mysterious car gliding through Piccadilly, reportedly conveying the Queen or another member of the royal family, reminds the attendant crowd of distinctions between the prominent and powerful among them and their ordinary selves: “there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street, removed only by a hand’s-breadth from ordinary people who might now, for the first and last time, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England . . .” (16). For Elizabeth Dalloway, the Strand and Chancery suggest the excitement of professional life, so different from her life in Westminster: “It was so serious; it was so busy. . . . She would become a doctor, a farmer, possibly go into Parliament, if she found it necessary, all because of the Strand . . .” (136-37). These landmarks signify an official London devoted to order and the forward march of time, to commerce, to empire and the rule of law.

Woolf depicts Clarissa Dalloway as, in many ways, a compliant participant in this official landscape of order and empire. Throughout the text, her mind vacillates between memories of her gentrified upbringing and her plans for the elaborate party she will give that evening. She experiences the London streets with ecstasy: “In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June” (4). She seems to accept unquestioningly that “[t]he War was over,” even while she thinks of “Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven -– over” (5). Clarissa, who later names Lady Bexborough as “the woman she admired most” (10), seems unaware of the irony in her meditations. By introducing the secret suffering of Mrs. Foxcroft and Lady Bexborough, however, Woolf creates the first small crack in the veneer of the novel’s post-war landscape. While Clarissa may admire the fortitude of those who subordinate their own tragedies to an official narrative of stoicism and optimism, for those who have suffered irreparable losses, the war is far from “over.”

Woolf’s portraits of both Miss Kilman and Peter Walsh further complicate Mrs Dalloway’s post-war London map. Miss Kilman’s seething anger over her own victimization in the war counters Lady Bexborough’s stoicism and Clarissa’s glib assertion that the war is “over; thank Heaven -– over” (5). Although Woolf’s portrait of Miss Kilman is often scathing, she nonetheless reveals sympathetically that Miss Kilman’s best chance for a productive and fulfilling life as a teacher was ruined when she was sent away from her school for “her views about the Germans . . . . she would not pretend that the Germans were all villains . . .” (123-24) Here Woolf reveals a dark side of British patriotism as it engenders prejudices that push Miss Kilman to society’s margins and leave her dependent on the charity of rich people like the Dalloways, who employ her as a tutor for their daughter.

Woolf’s portrayal of Peter Walsh, too, offers a subtle critique of British militarism and unquestioning patriotism. Just returned from colonial service in India, Peters walks up Whitehall, ostensibly admiring the “splendid achievement” of London society. Passing the houses of Parliament, the Admiralty, the War Office, he watches a battalion of soldiers dispatched to lay a wreath on the cenotaph honoring the war dead, “on their faces an expression like the letters of a legend written round the base of a statue praising duty, gratitude, fidelity, love of England” (51). Woolf undermines the authority of this “wholly admirable” landscape, however, when Peter notices that the soldiers “did not look robust. They were weedy for the most part, boys of sixteen, who might, to-morrow, stand behind bowls of rice, cakes of soap on counters” (51). This same walk reveals Peter’s own securities and delusions about himself. His anger and regret over Clarissa’s long-ago rejection and his insecurity about his present relationship with a married woman vie with his fantasy of a youthful and unencumbered self. While Peter, denying his own aging and the relentless passage of years, insists that he “yet stood at the opening of endless avenues, down which if he chose he might wander,” Woolf reminds the reader that this seemingly limitless and inviting landscape is an illusion; Peter is free to escape “(only of course for an hour or so) from precisely what he was . . .” (52). Woolf thus casts both Peter’s show of bravado and that being played out in the military march as street-level performances masking a more complex subtext of insecurity and loss.

Septimus’s story, too, offers a competing discourse that challenges the official narrative of post-war London life. Through Septimus, Woolf represents what is lost, forgotten, repressed, or denied by the official London “map.” A casualty of the war, he walks through the same landscape as Clarissa, but is blind to the signifiers of empire and authority to which she responds so readily, almost unconsciously. The naive and impressionable young man, having educated himself by reading and writing poetry and attending public lectures on Shakespeare, is “one of the first to volunteer” for the war. Encouraged in more “manly” pursuits by his supervisor Mr. Brewer, Septimus “went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square” (86).

The subtext of this official narrative of duty and sacrifice, of course, is Septimus’s emotional destruction in the war -– a tragedy that is played out on London’s streets. While Clarissa and Elizabeth experience the city and its crowds as exhilarating and full of possibilities, for Septimus, upon his return to England, the familiar landscape has reverted from a “place” full of reassuring signposts of meaning to a frightening and undifferentiated “space” in which he is lost. As Yi-Fu Tuan writes, “place” indicates familiarity and the endowing of a particular space with particular values. Absent our ability to recognize familiar landmarks, a familiar “place” quickly reverts to undifferentiated “space” and we feel unmoored, disconnected from both location and meaning. Tuan points out, “The world feels spacious and friendly when it accommodates our desires, and cramped when it frustrates them” (65). While Clarissa sees in the royal motorcar a symbol of authority and order, Septimus sees a threat: “And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree, Septimus thought, and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames” (15). Beauty remains for him “behind a pane of glass”; turning to his beloved Shakespeare he finds that “the intoxication of language . . . had shrivelled utterly.” Deprived of these familiar signifiers of beauty and order, Septimus concludes that “it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning” (88).

As a damaged war veteran, Septimus’s very existence belies the soldiers’ march down Whitehall that rewrites the horrors of war as triumph, duty, honor. Withdrawing into madness, he has become both a literal and figurative encumbrance to those around him; even as his story complicates the official version of the war, he perceives himself as “blocking the way . . . being looked at and pointed at” (15). Unable to separate past from present, to declare the war “over,” he relives scenes of combat and hears his dead comrade Evans speaking to him. His wife Rezia, following doctors’ orders, tries desperately to reconnect him to the public world, to make him “take an interest in things outside himself” (21). For Septimus, however, the shared symbolic landscape of parks and cricket matches, shops and music halls, is lost. While the message of a skywriting aeroplane connects disparate characters across the city –- Mr. Bowley, Maisie Johnson, Clarissa, Rezia –- for Septimus, the writing signals a private message that only he can discern:

So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks.
It was toffee; they were advertising toffee, a nursemaid told Rezia. (21-22)

Septimus’s madness also isolates Rezia, who is no longer the wife of a heroic returned soldier, but of a shameful victim: “Far rather would she that he were dead! She could not sit beside him when he stared so and did not see her and made everything terrible; sky and tree, children playing, dragging carts, blowing whistles, falling down; all were terrible . . . . and she could tell no one . . . . To love makes one solitary, she thought” (23). For Septimus and Rezia, the bustling streets and parks which Clarissa, Peter, and Elizabeth variously celebrate form a nightmare landscape of past horrors and future hopelessness.

Although Clarissa is firmly grounded in the upper echelons of London’s social hierarchy, Woolf periodically describes her as a character with highly permeable boundaries who exists both inside and outside the world of social privilege: “She would not say of anyone in the world that they were this or that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on” (8). In Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa functions as a liminal character who is simultaneously embedded in her social and political world and, periodically, outside of it as a critical observer. Anthropologist Victor Turner has defined liminality as a state of being “neither here nor there”; liminal entities are “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial . . .” (95). Liminals withdraw from ordinary life in order to critique existing conditions and to imagine or propose alternative models. The liminal is a “subjunctive” mode, Turner writes, which expresses “supposition, desire, hypothesis, possibility” (134) The liminal character withdraws from ordinary and actual life in order to glimpse what is possible (50).

In Turner’s formulation, a state of liminality often follows a time of transition or crisis; it is a transitory state marking the passage from one stage of life to another. The single day encompassed by Mrs Dalloway signifies just such a transitional time. Clarissa is preoccupied with memories of her Edenic youth at Bourton and her pure and passionate love for Sally Seton. At Bourton, Clarissa remembers standing on the threshold of the open French doors – a liminal space indeed –- anticipating that “something awful was about to happen” (3). That “something awful” is Clarissa’s passage from girlhood to adulthood, manifested in her loss of sexual innocence and disappointing marriage to Richard, the devastation of World War I, and Clarissa’s own illness, an unspecified ailment of the heart. On this day, she is sometimes overwhelmed by her fear of aging and by thoughts of death. Clarissa’s party creates a liminal moment in which she is temporarily transported out of the ordinary limits of time and space. Such liminal experiences offer the opportunity for scrutiny, for critique, and for change; they offer access to what is otherwise unknowable.

Clarissa’s home in Kensington, which seems to ground her firmly in the social and economic hierarchy of London society, initially seems unlikely as a liminal space. The beautifully appointed house, staffed by doting servants, signifies in every way her privileged position; it represents a geography designed to separate and categorize the social classes. To Peter Walsh, the house and Clarissa’s position in it indicate her capitulation to the dominant culture, to social status and the protection that it affords her; in the heat of one of their youthful arguments, he hurts her with his prediction that she “would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase; the perfect hostess he called her” (7). Woolf’s description of Clarissa in her house suggests not only opulence and social privilege, but barrenness. When she enters the hall it is “cool as a vault”; going upstairs, she withdraws further from the world, feeling “as if she had left a party” (30). In her bedroom, “The sheets were clean, tight stretched in a broad white band from side to side. Narrower and narrower would her bed be. . . . lying there reading . . . she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet” (31). The home to which Clarissa withdraws casts her life as set apart and privileged; even within her marriage, she remains chaste and untouched.

Viewing the house as a potentially liminal space, however, reveals the extent to which Clarissa has chosen this life, not only for its privileges and protections, but for the deep sense of privacy it affords her, and with that privacy the freedom of her imagination. Although Peter Walsh imagines that he would have offered Clarissa a life of adventure, of intellectual stimulation and resistance to dominant social values, Clarissa sees the prospect of marriage to Peter quite differently: “For in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her, and she him . . . But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable . . .” (7-8). While Clarissa’s virginal bedroom suggests on one level the “failure” of her intimacy with Richard (31), her sense of privacy and “independence” within her marriage has also allowed her to preserve as a delicious secret the “most exquisite moment of her whole life”: the memory of her relationship with Sally Seton (35). While Clarissa’s marriage may be sexually barren, her relationship with Sally is described in terms of both passion and fecundity:

. . . she could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman . . . 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! then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. (31-32)

Peter’s interruption of this intimacy is “like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness . . . . she felt his hostility; his jealousy; his determination to break into their companionship” (36). While Peter views Clarissa as cold and inviolate, his jealousy and insecurity render him an unreliable judge of her character. Woolf suggests, rather, that Clarissa’s private retreat is a form of self-preservation, a way of exercising freedom and power in the face of constraining circumstances.

Woolf’s characterization of Clarissa’s bedroom as “nunlike” casts it as a sacred space and suggests the spiritual nature of her seclusion. This secular religion draws its inspiration not from traditional religious rites or tokens, but from the domestic life that surrounds her: “she felt like a nun who has left the world and feels fold round her the familiar veils and the response to old devotions. The cook whistled in the kitchen. She heard the click of the typewriter. It was her life, and, bending her head over the hall table, she bowed beneath the influence . . .” Clarissa’s sense of thanksgiving, too, is secular: “not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more . . . one must repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it -– of the gay sounds, of the green lights, of the cook even whistling . . . one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments . . .” (29). Peter terms Clarissa’s sense of obligation and reciprocity an “atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness” (78). By characterizing Clarissa’s home as not merely a symbol of her place in society, but as a private spiritual retreat, Woolf explores the advantages of the geographic limitations so often imposed on women. “Lock up your libraries if you like;” states Woolf’s narrator in A Room of One’s Own, “but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (76).

Woolf is, of course, often withering in her critique of religion –- never moreso than in Mrs Dalloway. Miss Kilman, the aptly named tutor and companion of Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth, makes a caricature of religion; she is hateful, judgmental, and superior. Indeed, Clarissa admits, “it was not her one hated but the idea of her, which had undoubtedly gathered in to itself a great deal that was not Miss Kilman” (12). In Mrs Dalloway, religion is ineffectual in creating either transformation or connection. After an encounter with Clarissa that fills her with anger and resentment and a disappointing tea with Elizabeth, Miss Kilman turns in to Westminster Abbey seeking solace. Here she tries “to aspire above the vanities, the desires, the commodities, to rid herself both of hatred and of love” (133-34). There in the “habitation of God,” the social differences that so anger Miss Kilman seem, momentarily, to disappear: “raising her hands in a tent before her face, she sat beside those driven into shelter too; the variously assorted worshippers, now divested of social rank, almost of sex, as they raised their hands before their faces” (133). Once their prayers are over, however, the other worshippers become once again “middle class, English men and women, some of them desirous of seeing the wax works” (133). To Mr. Fletcher, sharing a pew with Miss Kilman, she becomes an obstacle; he “had to go. He had to pass her, and being himself neat as a new pin, could not help being a little distressed by the poor lady’s disorder; her hair down; her parcel on the floor . . .” (134). Thus, even in the Abbey, religion fails to erase social distinctions. Religion cannot solve what Clarissa terms “the supreme mystery which Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn’t believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving . . . here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?” (127) Woolf thus uses a geographic metaphor to depict Clarissa’s great spiritual puzzle: the failure of connection and lack of understanding among people. Creating such connections, knowing people “almost by instinct,” is Clarissa’s “gift.” Musing about death, she wonders whether it really ends anything at all; whether people do not, in fact, live on through their connections to other people and to places:

. . . somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself. (9)

Even within a striated and hierarchical London society, Woolf suggests here the possibility of other geographies, of being “laid out like a mist” connecting people across time and space.

Such moments of transcendence in Mrs Dalloway take place not in conventional sacred spaces, but in ordinary places that offer unexpected moments of connection. Such a moment is signified by the airplane that flies over the city, causing the diverse throngs in the London streets to all pause momentarily and look up. This moment unites Clarissa with Septimus and Rezia, with the unemployed man on the steps of St. Paul’s, with Maisie Johnson, a lonely Scottish girl just arrived in London: “All down the mall people were standing and looking up into the sky. As they looked the whole world became perfectly silent, and a flight of gulls crossed the sky, first one gull leading, then another, and in this extraordinary silence and peace, in this pallor, in this purity, bells struck eleven times, the sound fading up there among the gulls” (20-21). Clarissa’s parties, too, offer unexpected moments of connection. Although Peter scorns the social rituals that comprise Clarissa’s days, Woolf nonetheless depicts Clarissa’s desire to connect with people, even those outside of her usual social milieu, as authentic:

She made her drawing-room a sort of meeting-place; she had a genius for it. Over and over again he had seen her take some raw youth, twist him, turn him, wake him up; set him going . . . . odd unexpected people turned up; an artist sometimes; sometimes a writer; queer fish in that atmosphere. . . . she did it genuinely, from a natural instinct. (77)

Indeed, making these connections forms Clarissa’s philosophy of life:

. . . what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was so-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom? (122)

Clarissa thus expresses faith in the power of these moments of unity to effect change in individuals and to generate sympathy with their fellows. She suggests the possibility of momentarily transcending social boundaries and prefigures the novel’s central liminal moment, which takes place at her party.

As theologian Mircea Eliade argues, religious rites and festivals can invoke a liminal state; within these festival spaces, ordinary boundaries of time and space are suspended, replaced by a mythic time which is not linear but circular (70). In Mrs Dalloway, where conventional religious observances are dismissed as soulless and ineffectual, this festival space is found at Clarissa’s party. In preparation for the party, the doors have been taken off the hinges, suggesting that the party will attempt to resolve Clarissa’s “great mystery”; “here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?” (127) Even as Peter grudgingly makes his way to Clarissa’s house, he sees swarms of people being drawn to her with seeming inevitability:

Everybody was going out . . . it seemed as if the whole of London were embarking in little boats moored to the bank, tossing on the waters, as if the whole place were floating off in carnival . . . . cabs were rushing round the corner, like water round the piers of a bridge, drawn together, it seemed to him because they bore people going to her party . . . (164).

Woolf’s heightened language suggests the transformative nature of the gathering: Mrs. Hilberry calls Clarissa’s garden “enchanted” and Clarissa herself a “magician” (191); Clarissa watches the curtains being blown into the room like “birds of Paradise . . . it seemed as if there were a flight of wings into the room . . .” (168). As Douglas Howard points out in “Mrs Dalloway: Virginia Woolf’s Redemptive Cycle,” Clarissa’s party resurrects those presumed dead and restores the old friends from Clarissa’s past at Bourton in “a paradisal state of union . . . as the various consciousnesses that make up the party are joined in ‘oneness’ . . .” (Howard 156). Clarissa herself sees the transformation:

Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways, partly the background, it was possible to say things you couldn’t say anyhow else, things that needed an effort; possible to go much deeper. (170-71)

The event that threatens to spoil Clarissa’s party – the Bradshaws’ announcement of Septimus’s death -– in fact brings its greatest promise to fruition. When Clarissa hears the news, she is at first shattered. “Oh!” she thinks; “in the middle of my party, here’s death” (183). She withdraws from her guests into an empty room; “The party’s splendour fell to the floor, so strange it was to come in alone in her finery” (184). In London society, Clarissa and Septimus are separated by social class, by age, by geography. Throughout this day they have inhabited the same London streets without ever encountering each other. Yet Septimus reflects the fear of death that Clarissa has been musing about all day: “Then (she had felt it only this morning) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear. Even now, quite often if Richard had not been there reading the Times, so that she could crouch like a bird and gradually revive, send roaring up that immeasurable delight, rubbing stick to stick, one thing with another, she must have perished” (185).

The liminal space of Clarissa’s party effects a mystical union with Septimus that allows her both to sympathetically experience his death in her own body and to understand its meaning: “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. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate . . . . There was an embrace in death” (184). It is Clarissa’s very identification with Septimus, her sympathy with his choice of death, that causes her to embrace her own life anew. “She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. . . . He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room” (186). As Kimberly Rae Connor points out, “a liminal state and the freedom it allows cannot last forever. The arena in which one plays out a social drama is significant precisely because it is transient, a sanctuary or loophole away from the fields that stifle individual creativity and threaten social cohesion. Liminality allows one to approach the sacred but ideally leads one back out of liminality and to communitas . . .” (52). The liminal space of Clarissa’s party makes mobility possible — between past and present, sacred and profane, between divisions of class and gender. And this mobility, this sympathetic understanding across boundaries, in turn makes transformation possible.

As a liminal character, Clarissa becomes the sole witness to the revelation of Septimus’s life. It is important here to note that a number of critics have viewed Clarissa’s identification with Septimus as inauthentic. Natania Rosenfeld notes that Mrs Dalloway is fundamentally about class division, and that Clarissa’s notion of a mystical connection with others that transcends class boundaries is a “fraudulent egalitarianism” that she invents to comfort and justify herself (147). Deborah Guth, too, views Clarissa’s connection with Septimus as “spurious” (20), an “exercise in wish fulfillment” (24). By transforming Septimus’s death into a symbol, Guth argues, Clarissa evades its horrors. Viewing Clarissa’s party in a liminal context, however, suggests other possibilities. Turner classifies the liminal as a “subjunctive” mode expressing “supposition, desire, hypothesis, possibility, etc.” rather than “actual fact” (134). As both Rosenfeld and Guth suggest, Clarissa’s identification with Septimus is indeed “performance,” rather than fact. But as a performance in Turner’s “subjunctive mode” –- akin to a theatrical performance, religious ritual, or carnival –- Clarissa’s momentary unity with Septimus suggests the possibility of change. The liminal is a transitional state, a form of experimentation with what may be possible. Its function is to provide new insights with which the liminal character returns to “ordinary” space and time. It is Peter, who throughout the novel has wanted to see only Clarissa’s shortcomings, her triviality, who notices what Elizabeth Gualtieri-Reed calls a “sort of transubstantiation” in her, as evoked in the novel’s famous final words: “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?

It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was. (194)

Works Cited

Connor, Kimberly Rae. “Spiritual Geography: Ritual Transformation in the Fiction of Gloria Naylor.” The Literary Griot 14: 1, 2 (Spring/Fall 2002): 44-74.

Gualtieri-Reed, Elizabeth J. “Mrs Dalloway: Revising Religion.” Centennial Review 43. 2 (Spring 1999): 205-25.

Guth, Deborah. “’What a lark! What a plunge!’: Fiction as Self-Evasion in Mrs Dalloway.” Modern Language Review 84.1 (Jan. 1989): 18-25.

Howard, Douglass. “Mrs Dalloway: Virginia Woolf’s Redemptive Cycle.” Literature & Theology: An International Journal of Theory, Criticism and Culture 12.2 (June 1998): 149-58.

Rosenfeld, Natania. “Links Into Fences: The Subtext of Class Division in Mrs Dalloway.” LIT 9.2 (Oct. 1998): 139-60.

Squier, Susan M. Virginia Woolf and London: The Sexual Politics of the City. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine, 1969.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Vol. 2. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1978.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1925.

To Cite This Article:

Kristina Groover, ‘Taking the Doors off the Hinges: Liminal Space in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at Accessed on [date of access]