2   The House


Mrs. Dalloway was first published in 1925. It accompanies a set of characters – most importantly the main character Clarissa Dalloway, her old friend Peter Walsh, and Septimus Warren Smith[2] – on their strolls and errands through London within the span of a single summer’s day in the early 1920s. The novel moves fluidly between different perspectives, with shared perceptions of the city giving rise to divergent imaginations and recollections. Interlacing narratives from different points of view in a network of social ties and chance encounters unfolding around Clarissa, the novel realizes two projects central to Woolf’s poetics: representing processes of perception and depicting character.[3] The climax of the novel is a party hosted by Clarissa at her house in the evening, and the book opens with her going out in the morning to buy flowers for that party.

As she returns from her errand, her home is introduced through the auditory realm: the ears prick up in the cool darkness of the interior, while sight is explicitly pulled into question (Woolf 1925: 31). Thus, from the outset the home is audible in comparison to the city, not as silence but as a different array of sounds. Coming home means coming inside (LaBelle 2010: 49) and, moreover, coming to oneself, a connection Woolf explicitly makes as Clarissa enters her house: “The cook whistled in the kitchen. She heard the click of the typewriter. It was her life” (31). This exemplifies how, as a counterpart to the anonymity and liberty of “street haunting,” the home offers shelter from the “dynamics of exposure” through affording withdrawal into the familiar refuge of the private (LaBelle 2010: 48-50). This dynamic is clearly articulated both in the severity of the symptoms of Septimus Warren Smith’s shell shock (74ff., 155ff.) as well as explicitly made audible in the Dalloways’ house: Whenever anyone leaves the house, the transition is marked sonically as street noise intrudes into the domestic sphere, and goodbyes are drowned out (52, 138). In his writing about the home as an acoustic territory, LaBelle points out that concepts of “silence” and “noise” are relative and closely connected to definitions of behavioral norms that are specific to certain times and spaces. Thus, the weave of sound and silence in which the idea of a home constitutes itself is not only an expression of domestication and the negotiation of power structures but also the performative articulation of relationships and values that unfold within a socially-coded continuum of loudness (LaBelle 2010: 72-74, 47, 49-51).[4] Furthermore, the home as a “psychic state” (Bachelard 1957: 72) manifests itself in the choreographies of everyday life, which in turn are expressed by means of the delicate fabric of sounds and the microgeographies of the arrangements of things in the home, whose “gestures” are attuned to the inhabitants (LaBelle 2010: 52).[5] This tuning of a house and its inhabitants to each other can be heard in Mrs. Dalloway, where the home is simultaneously inscribed as a feminine domain through Woolf’s connection of Clarissa’s sense of self and her role as a hostess to her perception of her home: “Strange, she thought, pausing on the landing, and assembling that diamond shape, that single person, strange how a mistress knows the very moment, the very temper of her house! Faint sounds rose in spirals up the well of the stairs […]. All was for the party” (41, emphasis added). This passage hints at the performative and mainly feminine[6] work of “making home,” which complements the role of the hostess and which Bachelard describes in his seminal study of spatial metaphors in literature – The Poetics of Space – in a passage employing musical terminology: “In the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, it may be said that we become conscious of a house that is built by women” (68). In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf points out the political dimension inherent to the literary depiction of this sphere:


Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are 'important'; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes 'trivial'. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists. (Woolf 1929: 74)


Based on these initial insights, I will provide a philosophical context for Woolf’s depiction of subjectivity and develop the concept of an ethics grounded in the conditions and connotations of the home. This will be done through a close reading of two scenes from the novel, a reading which is all ears.