“‘I will come,’ said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. 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,” explains Peter Walsh in the exploratory stream-of-consciousness novel Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (165 Woolf). With a breathtaking air of anticipation and ardor, here the character Peter Walsh describes the exquisite transformation of self which he observes his long-time love interest undergo, allowing him to regain something he has lost. And just as these transformations of self function to describe something provided to one, they serve perhaps as even more of a hauntingly beautiful manner in which to describe something one is robbed of; of loss and grief, which is a major theme of the novel As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. These mentions of existence bring to light their corresponding questions which preceded them – who we are and who we are not; whether we are or is or was or will be – and are questions that lay the very foundation for some of the most intelligent and thought-provoking musings; a sort of soul-searching and yearning for meaning that is a complex yet singularly common characteristic of all human beings. We ask ourselves these questions on a daily basis, whether they are through conscious or unconscious thought processes; however, these questions serve a myriad of purposes, and can differ greatly in their role of allowing us to derive meaning from our lives here on earth. Reflective of this intricate and striking nature of reality, the characters in both Mrs. Dalloway and As I Lay Dying utilize these questions in order to make sense of the tragedies in the world around them. The unique ways in which Clarissa and Darl interpret the idea of death are many; however, immediately following their learning of loss, these different forms of interpretation unite in their common utility of language that allows them to reach their highest potentiality of self in order to cope.
Throughout Mrs. Dalloway, both Peter and Clarissa alike reminisce on their complex relationship which they hold throughout the majority of their lives, revealing an equally complex relationship which characterizes Clarissa’s transformation to her highest potential self that takes place when she must cope with the idea of death. From his realizations, as well as resentments that he shares concerning Clarissa and who she is to him at any given point in time, it can be seen that at one time Clarissa was an is to Peter – that is to say, she was the old Clarissa, the Clarissa of her highest form of self, which he knew when they were first acquainted. For example, when he surprise visits Clarissa after she returns home from buying flowers for her party, Peter reflects on how she is adventurous and daring and determined when he first knew her – the is of Clarissa. However, during this visit in reflecting upon Clarissa’s state of is, he begrudges that she is like that no longer, making her at that current time a was to him (37 Woolf). The fact that she is now a was is what allows her to reach her highest potential self once again in order to cope with death.
As a was Clarissa then, her attainment of her essential self happens at a very unique point in the novel: after her learning of the death of Septimus Smith, the shell-shocked veteran from World War I. She is struggling to cope with the idea of fleeting mortality, escape, and loss, and how they relate to the choices she must make which dictate how she is to continue living. In her private thoughts, she finally comes to a conclusion, experimenting with different forms of the essential self in order to comprehend what seems like nonsense: “… and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun… She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away while they went on living” (158 Woolf). Clarissa uses a unique technique of likening herself to Septimus, admiring how he preserved his soul as she wish she could have preserved hers, a technique that in its grappling to derive meaning from loss and pain allows her to attain her highest potentiality of self once again – an is filled with adventure, determination, and depth – serving the purpose to allow her to cope with the loss. As Peter says, “It is Clarissa… For there she was,” this pivotal transformation is recognized once and for all – a transformation that makes her Clarissa once again, ultimately allowing her to better understand the loss of which she learns.
The preservation and repair of Clarissa’s soul is equally important in the role that transformation to reach one’s essential self plays in allowing her to cope with death. In her is state – when her soul is preserved – she is in love with Peter, a love that allows her to be is. However, after marrying Richard, Clarissa and Peter alike recognize the sacrifice she makes which “stifles her soul,” a sacrifice through which she is no longer her highest potential self (64 Woolf). Peter recalls his antipathy of Clarissa’s change from is to was in regards to the state of her soul, mentioning his annoyance with her manner: “… timid; hard; arrogant; prudish. ‘The death of the soul.’ He had said that instinctively, ticketing the moment as he used to do – the death of her soul” (50 Woolf).
Clarissa realizes this sacrifice as well by her description of her encounter with Peter on his surprise visit: “And Clarissa had leant forward, taken his hand, drawn him to her, kissed him – actually had felt his face on hers… like pampas grass in a tropic gale in her breast… feeling as she sat back extraordinarily at her ease with him and light-hearted, all in a clap it came over her, If I had married him, this gaiety would have been mine all day!” (40 Woolf). Clarissa’s relationship with Sally Seton also reveals the sacrifice which Clarissa realizes she makes in marrying Richard: for example, when Clarissa quotes the lines of Othello in reflecting upon her encounters with Sally – “‘if it were now to die ’twere now to be most happy’” – this not only foreshadows the suicide of Septimus Smith, but also points to the extent of Clarissa’s feelings for Sally (30 Woolf). In Othello, Othello ardently loves his wife Desdemona, but ends up murdering her out of mistaken jealousy. Not able to withstand his regret, Othello then proceeds to kill himself. By likening herself to Othello and Sally to Desdemona, Clarissa not only reveals her deep-seated feelings for Sally, but also the regret she now experiences for foregoing her opportunity to be with her, and that it was she who murdered the possibility of love with Sally – and with that, some part of her own self.
At the time Clarissa is hosting her party, she is a was by the fact that both Peter and her know that her soul and thus her highest potentiality of self has been sacrificed through her choice to marry Richard, as well as her choosing to then indulge in such gay, frivolous activities. As Clarissa learns of the death of Septimus and she rushes off to contemplate what she has heard, this reflection allows her to achieve her highest potentiality of self once again from was – giving up her soul – to is – retaining her soul. The mode she uses to execute this transmutation is through the recognition of death as a means of communication, a realization that in its uniqueness allows her to admire Septimus and perhaps even envy him rather than grieve him: “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 embrace in death” (156 Woolf). Within this realization, Clarissa finds a secret utility of language; an epiphany through which she reaches an understanding with Septimus and thus death itself that alters and mends her soul to preserve it once again. Through this transformation that allows Clarissa to find her essential self once again, Clarissa is allowed to cope with death through discoveries of language, communication, and contemplation that restore her soul in a profound way.
As Clarissa uses language as one means of recovering her essential self in order to cope with death, so too does Darl of As I Lay Dying. With the single narrative offered by the deceased Addie in the middle of the novel, the reader gains an understanding of Darl’s unique manipulation and understanding of language which he seems to acquire from his mother: “I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride… I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him…” (171-172, Faulkner). Darl understands that if one truly feels a certain emotion or understands a certain concept, he does not have the words to explain what it is; he simply knows. It is this capability, this understanding, that allows him to see so transparently into the lives and secrets of others, as he too sees that language holds its certain mysteries that allows one to transcend his current self in order to reach his highest potential self. When Addie is about to die, for example, Darl has his own thoughts which he directs toward the situation without speaking a single word. Dewey Dell recognizes his ability at this moment: “It was then, and then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words, and I knew he knew because if he had said he knew with the words I would not have believed that he had been there and saw us” (27 Faulkner). Dewey Dell identifies that if Darl had said out loud what was really happening, she would not have believed he really knew. Through this process that he goes through in trying to grasp the reality of his mother’s impending death, Darl uses language by possessing a thought, something said within him, to something unsaid through an action or observation. It is through this action or observation that he says something, using language as an oasis in which he is able to simultaneously hide from and vulnerably expose himself to the loss and death which he is already beginning to experience. By attaining his highest potentiality of self – communication through language – Darl is able to cope with the tragic loss of his mother by employing his essential self as homage to her spirit.
After his mother has passed away, Darl continues struggling to attain his highest potential self in order to deal with the grief which he finds himself facing. He does this by attempting to discern the difference between the state of consciousness of a person when she is awake versus when she is asleep, and uses this to reason about his mother’s state of self:
… Since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is. (80-81 Faulkner)
By grappling with whether his mother will not be or must be, Darl employs cold rationalization to dictate whether his mother’s self is something that must be that way in a desperate attempt to accept the fact that her death is something with which he cannot argue or change. Darl employs various transitions and forms of self in order to define clearly what surrounds him; for example, he discerns that the rest of the Bundrens still need their wagon to transport Addie to her burial site, and thus “the wagon is” because there is utility still yet to be extracted from it. However, when “the wagon is was” – the wagon is no longer needed – “Addie Bundren will not be” – she will be at peace in the ground where the family does not have to continue to struggle with the idea of its loss any longer (81 Faulkner). In this instance, the way in which the subjects of Darl’s thoughts undergo changes in order to reach their highest potentialities of self allows Darl himself to reach his highest potentiality of self through transitions between states of assurance and uncertainty; from awake to asleep to awake; to denial from acceptance and back again, thus allowing him to cope with the idea of his mother’s death.
The ways in which the preceding characters cope with death find similarities in how reaching one’s highest potentiality of self, or one’s essential self, seems to allow each individual to manage the idea of loss. While these characters experience their respective transformations, however, it is important to consider what grand purpose death serves in each individual’s life. For Clarissa, death seems to act as a revelation – repairing and undoing damage that has long haunted her soul and very self, allowing her to be an is that is welcomed into a society that too often deems one unfit or unstable; an is with depth and purpose and certainty. Juxtaposing, however, is Darl’s situation in the whirlwind of desperation and grief that characterizes the loss of his mother: in his attempts to cope peacefully, only to be riddled with anguish and confusion, anything Darl does possess after the death of his mother is brutally and tastelessly destroyed. Although this outcome leads to Darl’s eventual capture into an insane asylum, he still goes through the grueling and inevitable process of attaining his highest potential self which allows him to cope in such a way. These stark differences are representative of the reality of how each and every one of us grapples with death and loss every day. Perhaps this is what was and is needed – repairing and unraveling; restoring and destroying – for each individual character and each individual human being to cope. Wicked and inimical this reality seems, indeed; however, it is this very reality which allows each and every one of us to achieve our own essential selves in order to not evade, but rather meet, the inevitable with open arms.