Dalloway and Da-sein: Authenticity of Being Towards Self, Death and Others
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is a confrontation of Da-sein in the form of a novel before Heidegger even wrote Being and Time; it is a modern examination of existence in a temporal metaphysic. In 1925, Woolf published this novel about Clarissa Dalloway, the female socialite with a vivid consciousness, and her individual ontological inquiry on a singular day in June in post-WWI London. Woolfe wasn’t the only scholar to address the crisis of being in this mid-war period. Two years later, in a parallel world, philosopher Martin Heidegger published Being in Time. In it, Heidegger both questions what it is to be a human being and also launches a philosophical investigation into Da-sein, his personified idea of a “being-in-the-world” in time.
As an ontologist, Heidegger is concerned with being, and the fact that the modern world seems to have lost our sense of “Being” (Da-sein), which is a cause that Virginia Woolfe addresses in Mrs. Dalloway. Da-sein is a “finite, contingent and uncertain” being in the world; “it is a collection of psychic states like worry, guilt and anxiety, and a constellation of human entities,” summarizes historian Dr. Michael Sugrue, and “it is not like anything else in the world, but it is the… vehicle in which the matrix in which beings are disclosed to us.” In other words, Da-sein is the means by which we see being, but Da-sein itself is not like any of the beings that it discloses. Heidegger argues in Being and Time that we don’t know what Da-sein is on the whole, or what it is that ties the physical “beings” we perceive in the word together.
Even though we can describe the “beings” that Da-sein reveals, we describe them without understanding or knowing Da-sein, further obscuring both smaller “beings” and Da-sein from us. Just as light in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave discloses shadows on the cave wall that are mere representations of being, Heidegger’s Da-sein discloses the things in the world to us, but isn’t one of the things that is disclosed itself; the light (as Plato and his contemporaries understood it) and Da-sein differ from physical entities, and are hidden from us by our current understanding of being. Therefore, in order to understand Da-sein, Heidegger argues that one must evaluate existence in a temporal metaphysic rather than a spatial metaphysic.
Although Mrs. Dalloway predates Being and Time by two years, Woolf weaves the same temporal threads as Heidegger to compose Clarissa Dalloway’s ontological journey; Clarissa’s narrative is a full-bodied and clear examination of Da-sein in a temporal metaphysic. While Woolf’s depiction of Clarissa’s life aligns with Heidegger’s process of individualization, it also fundamentally subverts Heidegger’s individual philosophy of being. Instead of following Heidegger’s prescriptions for individuality that leads to solipsism, Woolf uses Clarissa’s ontological journey on this day in June to emphasize that she must not only be aware of her internal self but also aware of the larger human condition outside of herself — with what French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would call “being towards others” — in order for her to find her own being. She latches onto her own authentic individuality through her relationships — genuine or not — to and with other people. Like Pater’s gemlike flame, Clarissa’s closing epiphany in her bedroom demonstrates that aestheticizing one’s life through “being towards others” can conquer Heideggerian solipsism and nihilism — at least for a certain time.
Heidegger draws a distinct contrast between the authentic and inauthentic self, a dichotomy that Woolf explores in the context of Clarissa Dalloway. When the reader first meets Clarissa, she is isolated from Dasein and from her authentic self. She is embedded in what Heidegger would call “the They” of her aristocratic English society. Inauthentic being is “a quite distinctive kind of being-in-the-world…which is completely fascinated by the ‘world’… and with Others in the ‘they’” (Being and Time 176). The inauthentic Da-sein is distracted from their mood, angst, or conscience; if one chooses to ignore it, they risk abstracting and fashioning an inauthentic conception of self and the world.
As the wife of a wealthy husband in post-war London, Clarissa is a homemaker and socialite; she is tasked with being fascinated with the “world” of party-making and rearranging roses, linens and other frivolities to maintain a socially acceptable appearance for her visitors. Woolfe’s third person omniscient narrator initially describes Clarissa as someone who:
could not think, write, even play the piano. She … loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense… All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the Park… then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was! — that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all. (9).
In this passage, Clarissa’s thoughts of her daily routine, likes and dislikes entrap her in a cycle of distraction, and yet dissipate as she looks towards the final reality of death. Clarissa later describes that she feels content with her life, claiming to embrace the present moment: “this, here, now, in front of her,” yet her fear of “death” and “the end” here indicate that she is deeply unsettled with her state of being (Woolf 9).
Isolated and unsettled within “the They,” Clarissa is constrained by her interiority, which keeps her from confronting Da-sein in the present. Sustained by flashbacks and memories that create interior time; she constantly oscillates between her past and her future, and rarely thinks about her present self. Woolfe navigates the depth of Clarissa’s consciousness with her blended transitions between soliloquy, dialogue and omniscient narrative, but particularly focuses on Clarissa’s countless recollections of the Bourton estate and her youth. Clarissa reminisces on her encounter with Sally Seton at Bourton, considering it to be “the most exquisite moment of her whole life,” an action that keeps herself from realizing the potential exquisite nature of her present life and her Da-sein, similar to how Anny’s “perfect moments” in Sartre’s Nausea constrain her to her impression of past memory (35). The time that Clarissa spends paging through her memories indicates, as she voices later, that she is “desperately unhappy” with her present life (120). She is a woman burdened by the weight of her own mortality, with no one to share it with but her fragmented past and present self. Upon opening a window in her house earlier in the novel, she refers to wind that comes in as “chill and sharp and yet… solemn” and starts “feeling as she did…that something awful was about to happen” (79). The juxtaposition between her home’s interior and the chilling exterior world indicates the growing separation between Clarissa’s internal sense of Being and the “They” of the outside world.
Clarissa begins her journey toward authenticity and Da-sein after she notices a shift in her psychic state: a heaviness that weighs down her mood. Heidegger defines mood as that which “first makes possible directing oneself toward something” external to the They; it is an emotional state and outlook on the world that allows it to step outside of the generalized They (Heidegger 137). As such, Clarissa’s mood indicates that she subconsciously understands that she is disconnected from herself — from her Da-sein — despite how satisfied she claims to be with her life in “the They.” When the reader learns at the beginning of the novel that Clarissa “had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone,” it is clear that she is not “happy”(8). Though she’s constantly surrounded by people, “life”, and other things she claimed to “simply like,” she describes herself as having “the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown” by other people (Woolf 10).
Clarissa feels this sense of alienation not only from her surroundings and from her acquaintances, but from herself. She feels what Heidegger would call “being-not-at-home,” or “uncanniness,” as she reveals that “every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself” (166). Her married name sounds unfamiliar to her, as she describes the uncanniness of “being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway”(18). She exists somewhere in between now and then, life and death, happiness and unhappiness, all whilst having the overhanging feeling that time is running out. In this manner, her Da-sein is trying to tell her external, public self that she is lacking a true sense of ontology — that she is only an empty shell that has yet to be filled with understanding of being.
Feeling not at home, Clarissa is primed to experience anxiety, Heidegger’s next ontological movement toward individuality. Like Kierkegaard’s dread, Heidegger’s concept of anxiety is what “first discloses the world as world” to the individual, leading Da-sein to individuate “to its own most being-in-the-world which, as understanding, projects itself essentially upon possibilities” (188). Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s former love, provokes Clarissa’s anxiety with a single question: “Are you happy, Clarissa? Does Richard — ” he stops, about to inquire whether Clarissa’s husband makes her happy (47). As she prepares for her party in the evening, this question plagues Clarissa with anxiety, which she calls a “feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (8). Even though Clarissa is unable to find any solace in the “They self” or in her own interior life, something keeps her from reaching out to death. Heidegger writes in Being and Time that the anxiety-inducing event is death. For Heidegger, the idea of time is arranged on a scale from “being towards death,” which essentially means death is the “horizon” of human existence (234). As Da-sein develops an understanding of its place in the world through death, it is able to distance itself from the They, and consider individualized possibilities. Clarissa eventually understands Da-sein through “being towards death,” but does so in a manner separate from Heidegger.
However, despite the fact that Clarissa’s Dalloway’s story is a confrontation of Dasein, Woolf’s novel rejects Heidegger’s focus on the sole value of the individual in Being and Time, as her novel includes what Levinas, one of Heidegger’s contemporaries, calls the “Other.” Levinas writes in Totality and Infinity that “To approach the Other is to put into question my freedom,” emphasizing that being should be focused towards others, rather than towards one’s own death, like Heidegger suggests (303). Concerned with the solipsism of Heidegger’s line of thought, Levinas worries that if we exist solely within our individual journeys toward our personal Da-sein, the only real obligation that humanity would have left is that we should be authentic to ourselves — which overlooks our “responsibility” towards others.
Like Levinas, Woolf argues in Mrs. Dalloway that individuals can better approach their own Dasein through “being towards others”. During her party, Clarissa finally approaches Da-sein in the present as she makes a connection with people she doesn’t know: with Septimus and the old woman who lives across the road from her. Embracing her mortality — and Da-sein — in the present, Clarissa reconciles her past and present self, and ends her cycle of inauthentic being. Clarissa first embraces Da-sein as she hears about Septimus’ suicide, an action which transforms her fear of death into a call for authentic being in the present. At her party, Clarissa empathizes with Septimus, a shell-shocked war veteran who “killed himself,” a character that the reader intimately knows, but a man that Clarissa never met (186). Although he wanted to live, and did not want to “throw it[his life] away” like Clarissa assumes, she is liberated by the idea; she sees beauty in Septimus’ suicide and in his individual choice to “not be”. Clarissa reflects that in his death, there was:
A thing… 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; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death. (187)
Through Septimus, Clarissa finds hope in death’s “embrace”, and comfort in knowing that one can individuate with one’s death. In the same way, with “being towards death,” Heidegger writes that death is the most authentic experience, as it is an individual experience that can only belong to you.
Clarissa then embraces Da-sein in the present as she watches her older neighbor, in a building opposite hers, getting ready to sleep that night. At one point, she is shocked to realize that the old woman — an aged mirror of her own being — “stared straight at her” (186). Although Clarissa doesn’t know exactly how the old woman is feeling across the way, she recognizes that the old woman was able to see her too; she is surprised that someone else exists outside of herself. Instead of seeing herself within the old woman and falling into solipsism, Clarissa sees the old woman across the way as a separate and distinct being, and the sky suddenly appears “new to her” (186). Drawing nearer to Da-sein by recognizing another person’s individuality, Clarissa sees her first glimmers of hope in the novel; she finds hope in that they share the same sun, the same light and the same day. These moments of external and internal consciousness move Clarissa towards authenticity, and dissipate her fears of death and old age; she does not fear “the heat of the sun” as she once did. Repeating the ostinato-like line “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” she burns on like Pater’s gemlike flame, reminding herself to embrace each day towards death that she is given (186). She has embraced the potentiality of Da-sein through her perception of other people in her world — an action that liberates her from the “They self,” even if only for a short period of time.
From here, Clarissa’s Da-sein is presented with two options: her Da-sein might pursue these possibilities in order to become an authentic self, or her Da-sein might retreat back into the blissful ignorance of the They, ignoring its own unique possibilities and becoming an inauthentic being once more (135). Though Clarissa connects with Da-sein in the present at the end of the novel, she has to return to the “They-self,” as to be human is to confront the world the way it is not; to be human is to, each day, accept — and love — one’s fate (amor fati), which is that one day, as humans, we will die. Like Walter Pater writes in his reflections on the Renaissance, “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy is success in life,” we must concretize the fact that we will die but realize this fact’s potential: that being toward death is a tool that keeps us authentic to ourselves in each moment until death (186). To achieve this success and maintain her authenticity, both Clarissa and the reader must confront death to continually embrace Dasein in the present. And yet, as Woolf suggests at the end of Mrs. Dalloway, life is not a solitary journey, and being towards Others will keep us authentic to ourselves — to our Dasein — too.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. University of New York Press, 1996.
Levinas, Emmanuel. “Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority.” Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Martinus Nijihoff Publishers, 1979.
Pater, Walter. “The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry.” Project Gutenberg, Oxford University Press, 27 Mar. 2009, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2398/2398-h/2398-h.htm.
Sugrue, Michael. Heidegger: Being and Time. Lecture Recording. Ave Maria University, Jan. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaobMHescwg.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Mariner, 1990.