The Concept of Epiphany in Mrs Dalloway Essay Example


According to Minoli Salgado in her article entitled “When Seeing is Not Believing: Epiphany in Anita Desai’s Games at Twilight”, the “epiphany is a central concept in short story criticism” (Salgado 103). Typically, an epiphany sparks personal growth in a character following some kind of enlightenment. Sometimes, however, authors subvert this convention. A subverted epiphany occurs when the character becomes enlightened, or has some kind of realization, but does not take action or does not change in any way. Therefore, the disruption of the conventional epiphany gives more meaning to the message or theme of the story that the author is trying to convey. 

The subverted epiphany plays an essential role in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. Taking place over the course of a day, Clarissa Dalloway reminisces about her life and her choices, and her reflective state of mind leads her down the road, passing several epiphanies on her way, to the local florist. While walking down Bond Street, “[s]he had the oddest sense of being herself invisible” (Woolf 9). She realizes that she is not special in any way, shape, or form, at least in her eyes, which spirals into the larger realization that there could be “…no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street…” (Woolf 9) because her life is almost at its end. She then realizes that her identity has been reduced to “…Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (Woolf 9). If this were a typical epiphany, Mrs. Dalloway would most certainly do something about her discontentment with her life. However, she submissively continues her trip to the florist amongst the others walking down Bond Street. 

Mrs. Dalloway’s recognition of life’s futility does not spark a radical character change that is typical of epiphany, but instead causes her to feel apathetic towards her daily life. This is exemplified not only when she continues her errand to the florist, but also when she finds out that her husband has agreed to have lunch with another woman. Even though “…the shock of Lady Bruton asking Richard to lunch without her [made her] shiver…” (Woolf 22), she reacts passively, retreating to her room, which is actually “…[the] attic; the bed [is] narrow…” (Woolf 23), and the room is lacking any signs of life or vitality. As observed, purpose and value is lacking in every aspect of Mrs. Dalloway’s life, including her separate sleeping quarters. 

Woolf utilizes the subverted epiphany to allow her readers to gain insight into what it was like to live as a European woman in the 1920s, especially a woman of privilege. Clarissa’s epiphany reveals that women have no purpose other than to get married, have children, and host parties in their old age. To a modern reader, Mrs. Dalloway’s lack of agency and purpose is surprising, which is what Virginia Woolf (arguably a modern woman born before her time) had intended for her audiences to feel when reading this story. Moreover, the fact that Clarissa is a woman of privilege with quite a bit of social influence, yet still must sleep in the attic, because her husband claims that she is ill (even though she is not) further perpetuates the idea that women did not have a right to fight for themselves, which is proven through her lack of action or change after her fist epiphany while walking down Bond Street. 

If Mrs. Dalloway were like Virginia Woolf, herself a progressive woman, she would not have completed her errand to the florist and instead would have gone home to stand up to her husband. Further, when Clarissa discovers that her husband is having a luncheon with another woman, she would have proceeded to Lady Bruton’s home to retrieve him and also would have refused to be banished to the attic. However, Clarissa, in this time, would have had no right in society to do any of these things, which is why she is passive and does not focus on rectifying her life or finding her purpose after realizing that she no longer has one. 

The idea of women lacking agency over their own lives does not only appear in historical novels, but also in modern short stories. Lucy Corin discusses this idea in her work entitled “Madmen,” a short-story that takes place in a futuristic America in which children that have reached “adulthood” adopt a “madman” to cure in a test of true maturity. When the main character, Alice, arrives at the adoption center and looks at a few of the madmen (who are in cages), she reaches a very subdued epiphany concerning which madman she would choose. She realizes that she wants to adopt a female madman who had traveled the world and done almost everything, but was dubbed “mad” because of “…an episode…where she had been ‘excessively frightened by soldiers’” (Corin 434).  Alice realizes that this is the madman she wants, however her mother tells her no. This power structure between Alice and the madman presents an interesting commentary on women’s agency—that no matter whether you are in a position of power (Alice), or completely powerless (the madman), you still cannot make decisions for yourself. 

First of all, it is apparent that the reasoning behind why this madman was dubbed “mad” is absurd. In fact, Alice states that “…please note the air quotes [around ‘excessively frightened by soldiers’ which are so annoying but I’m serious because I believe I’ve heard about those assholes” (Corin 434), explaining that these soldiers are actually frightening, and that the idea of being “excessively” afraid of them is valid. Therefore, the madman was placed in the institution because of a reaction that can be understood and rationalized by someone not considered to be mad. It is also interesting that even though she is a woman in this institution that she is still called a “madman,” which signifies a lack of identity, much like Mrs. Dalloway’s. Furthermore, now that she is placed in this institution, she no longer has the power to control her own life, and is at the mercy of children that have “come of age” and are dubbed “normal,” much like how Clarissa is at the mercy of her husband’s demands.

Another link between this madman and Clarissa is that they are both put into cages of sorts, as the madman is actually in a cage and as Clarissa is caged in literally (by having to sleep in the attic) and figuratively (by her society dictating her purpose in life as only a wife and mother). As for Alice’s epiphany of which choice she wants to make that is shut down by her mother, it reveals that women and girls who are in positions of power, (like Alice, who gets to choose which madman she will care for, and Clarissa, who is wealthy, cannot make their own decisions because of outside societal forces (embodied by her mother who immediately shuts down her choice). Moreover, instead of arguing with her mother over this madman, she instead decides to pick another madman at random, one that she has neither seen nor met, making this epiphany a subverted one. 

Subverted epiphanies are essential in conveying an author’s message, whether it be subliminal (like in “Madmen”) or overt (like in Mrs. Dalloway). Minoli Salgado states that “‘moment of truth stands as the model for the short story, the way of life stands as a model for the novel’” (Salgado 103). The idea that real life is the basis of all literature gives these works heightened purpose, which is to emphasize the discrepancies in the both the power structures and gender roles of both historical and modern eras. Without the subverted epiphany in which both Mrs. Dalloway and Alice do not take action after being enlightened, the causes messages of the authors to be apparent to the readers.

 

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