“Thank God I don’t have to rememory or say a thing because you know it all,” Sethe says on page 115 of Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved. “Beloved” deals with the trauma and aftermath of slavery in Reconstruction era Ohio, while introducing the idea of “rememory,” which main character Sethe describes as the experience of remembering and engaging directly with a memory (Morrison, 21). This concept of rememory has become a formidable critical tool for understanding how trauma continues to haunt literary and historical characters, by allowing their thoughts and experiences to transcend the boundaries of time.
This concept will be applied to Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, to uncover how the aftermath and trauma of World War I affect and live through the character of Septimus. Though Morrison’s novel and thus the concept of rememory came after “Mrs. Dalloway,” the experiences of Woolf’s character Septimus are, in fact, that of rememory, showing the importance and versatility of Morrison’s concept. The lingering effects of memory and trauma, the shift in the power dynamics between characters, and the distortion of identity caused by rememory in “Beloved” are also present in “Mrs. Dalloway,” illustrating its existence in both works.
This analysis is not the first to draw connections between the works of Woolf and rememory, but it would be the most thorough: Marianne Hirsch used Woolf’s work and life as an anecdote in her work on Morrison, Maternity and Rememory, by describing how the death of Woolf’s mother haunted her throughout her life, specifically while she was writing To The Lighthouse (Hirsch, 92). Hirsch did not use rememory as a tool for uncovering Woolf’s work; and her mention of the novelist is brief, as are most mentions of Woolf when thinking about “Beloved” or rememory.
Instead, Hirsch argues that “male intervention” disrupts the mother-daughter relationship of the concept (Hirsch, 98). While this argument holds well for “Beloved,” the applicability of rememory extends beyond this and should be applied to Woolf’s work of Mrs. “Dalloway. ” With rememory as a critical tool for analyzing “Mrs. Dalloway,” new facets of the novel begin to be exposed. In order to effectively use rememory as an analytical tool, one definition of the term will be used for this analysis, coming from The Debt of Memory: Reparations, Imagination, and History in Toni Morrison’s Beloved by Perez Richard.
In “The Debt of Memory,” Richard establishes that rememory “names the traumatic substance of historical activity” and “describes an alternate dimension of reality, a space charged by dense layers of historical perception whose presence one feels, senses, and experiences” (Richard, 1). In short, rememory is the process by which one tangibly experiences memories of the past in everyday life. One of the most prolific instances of Septimus’s rememory occurs on page 20: In Regent’s park, Septimus rememories his deceased friend and fellow soldier from World War I, Evans.
There was his hand; there the dead. White things were assembling behind the railings opposite. But he dared not look. Evans was behind the railings! ” This event brings the memory of Evans into the physical world: he is behind solid railings in the park, fully “there” as a part of the world of the living. Later on, Septimus rememories Evans again, with Evans and death beckoning Septimus to join them behind the trees in Regent’s Park. However, Septimus expresses that he doesn’t want to be reunited with Evans, as he did not want to die: “The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids.
There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself’For God’s sake don’t come! Septimus cried out. For he could not look upon the dead. But the branches parted. A man in grey was actually walking towards them. It was Evans! ” (Woolf, 57). Septimus directly expresses this sentiment again in an inner monologue during his appointment with Dr. Holmes, “Why should he kill himself for their sakes? Food was pleasant; the sun hot; and this killing oneself, how does one set about it, with a table knife, uglily, with floods of blood,—by sucking a gaspipe?
He was too weak; he could scarcely raise his hand” (Woolf, 76). Septimus is forced to deal with the consequences of WWI and Evan’s death by having to rememory him on a day-to-day basis, seeing him throughout his daily life. The recurring presence of death in Septimus’s life through rememory is what causes his insanity, which in turn causes him to have more rememories, creating a feedback loop of mental instability. As he eventually kills himself, Septimus’s suicide is symbolically connected to his first encounter with Evans: Under the lens of rememory, Septimus’s suicide by jumping and impaling himself on the railings of Mrs. Filmer’s fence was an attempt to join Evans behind the railing of Regent’s park, the world of the dead.
Though in this situation, rememory is a personal or private experience with one’s self, in “Beloved,” Sethe explains that this is not always the case. In “Mrs. Dalloway,” the rememories of Septimus affect those around him, which eventually leads to his suicide. On page 21 of “Beloved,” Sethe explains to her daughter, Denver, that other people can see and experience an individual’s rememories: “you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else,” Sethe says.
After Septimus’s suicide in “Mrs. Dalloway,” the rememory of his experience haunts Clarissa, a woman whom Septimus never met, which allows Clarissa to “see” and feel his suicide for herself on page 151: “He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it. ” Though Septimus perished before he ever met Clarissa, he transcends life and death through rememory, allowing Clarissa to experience his death first hand.
The way that Septimus’s life becomes eternal through rememory plays into how Sethe and Denver discuss rememory. Talking to her mother on page 22, Denver says, “If it’s still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies,” to which Sethe replies, “Nothing ever does. ” It is through rememory that trauma and death continue to afflict the living. In her work Traumatic Encounter with History: The War and the Politics of Memory in Mrs. Dalloway, author Mei-Yu Tsai argues that Septimus’s death “haunts” the characters in Mrs. Dalloway as “the effects of the war are most definitely not put to rest” (Tsai, 1).
Septimus serves as an artifact of World Warl and thus its rememory, and is encouraged by the characters of the novel in subtle ways – and not so subtle ways – to commit suicide, to alleviate themselves of the pain Septimus brings to them. On page 18, as Septimus embarrasses his wife, Rezia, in Regent’s Square, she thinks, “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. Though Rezia digresses by saying “Nothing could make her happy without him,” it is clear that the pain Septimus brings to her through his rememories is immense. When Septimus is in an appointment with doctor Sir William, he attempts to confess a “crime,” only stammering out “l,” to which Sir William responds: “Try to think as little about yourself as possible. ” He does not want to hear and deal with Septimus’s pain and emotions, and thus the rememories of the war.
Both Rezia and Septimus believe that Sir William does not wish to help Septimus deal with his rememories, instead leaving him “deserted. Sir William also tries to isolate Septimus and the burden of World Warl by prescribing Septimus to rest in his home, in seclusion away from Rezia. Septimus sees both Sir William and Dr. Holmes as representations of the world telling him “Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes,” which he eventually does ( Woolf, 76). Rememory also creates a power dynamic between those providing rememories and those receiving them, which can be seen in both “Beloved” and in “Mrs. Dalloway. ” In the former, Sethe is constantly “feeding” her child, Beloved, her memories as a way to sustain her. “[Memories] became a way to feed her…
Sethe learned the profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling. It amazed Sethe (as much as it pleased Beloved) because every mention of her past life hurt. Everything in it was painful or lost” (Morrison, 34). As the story continues, Beloved begins seeping strength from Sethe, with Sethe giving up portions of her food to physically feed Beloved: “The hungrier they got, the weaker; the weaker they got, the quieter they were– which was better than the furious arguments” (Morrison, 135). In “Mrs. Dalloway,” this plays out with Septimus being the storyteller, and the doctors – Sir William Bradshaw and Dr. Holmes – being the listeners.
“‘You served with great distinction in the War? ‘OThe patient repeated the word ‘war’ interrogatively. ‘The War? ‘ the patient asked. The European War—that little shindy of schoolboys with gunpowder? Had he served with distinction? He really forgot. In the War itself he had failed. ” Septimus is unable to feel emotions, “an appalling crime… condemned to death by human nature. ” (Woolf, 79). As the doctors continue to try to “heal” Septimus of his post-traumatic stress by suppressing him and his rememories, he is brought to suicide, while the doctor’s remain unscathed.
The final aspect or consequence of rememory that will be analyzed is the distortion of identity. In chapter 23 of “Beloved,” the three female protagonists Denver, Sethe, and Beloved all lose their distinctive voices, to create an incoherent monologue. They are put in direct discussion with one another, with no attributions. However, rememory is brought up in the discourse, on page 121: “You rememory me? Yes. I remember you. You never forgot me? Your face is mine. ”
The three characters are lost in the rememories of the past, rom the trans-Atlantic slave trade to slavery itself, and the events specific to the novel “Beloved” (ex. Denver expecting her father to return). They are left to wander through each other’s thoughts in search of answers. A similar dynamic occurs between Septimus and Clarissa while they function as contrasting entities. In Atomic and Surface Theories of Matter in Mrs. Dalloway: A Comparative Study of Clarissa and Septimus, author David Leon Higdon explains the connections and contrasts between the two characters through scientific theo of matter and physics, even though they never meet in the novel.
Higdon explains: “Clarissa and Septimus seem to traverse a kind of interface between worlds. They are hyper-aware of the physical world—its smells, sights and sounds, but also of a hidden world of memory, imagination and symbols” (Higdon, 14). Higdon argues that Woolf connects the two characters through various means, for example, the window: “Mrs. Dalloway” opens with Clarissa opening the windows while Septimus’s life ends with him falling from one.
Higdon makes note of the different ways they engage with the public in the novel, with Clarissa being a socialite and Septimus being isolated and overcome by this isolation: “Ultimately, Clarissa resists the feelings of alienation, embracing her natural, albeit superficial, role in society, while Septimus is overcome by “human nature,’ plunging into the void” (Higdon, 15). After Septimus’s death, Clarissa encounters his rememory (as previously examined), which leads to her epiphany in which she comes to terms with her aging and eventual death. With their identities crossing through rememory, Septimus died so that Clarissa could live.
This is not a story to pass on,” Morrison concludes in “Beloved. ” In an interview with Time Magazine, Morrison said: “[Beloved] has got to be the least read of all the books [l’ve] written because it is about something that the characters don’t want to remember. I don’t want to remember. black people don’t want to remember, white people don’t want to remember. I mean, it’s national amnesia” (Fabre, 257). In this way, “Mrs. Dalloway” serves to remind people of World War || and its aftermath. It is a story that no one wants to remember, with the characters of the novel fighting to suppress its memory and artifacts through Septimus.
However, with rememory, World Warl and Septimus can’t be suppressed forever and continue to exist, challenging characters like Clarissa to reconsider how they live their day-to-day lives. With an understanding of rememory, new dimensions of “Mrs. Dalloway” begin to unfold, with connections between the characters as well as connections between the realms of the living and the dead revealing new ways to interpret Septimus and his role in ensuring that the characters of the novel not forget the horrors of World War I.