Mrs. Dalloway and The Great Gatsby: Different Countries but Similar Discontents

 

Both Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald published their most acclaimed novels in 1925, a few years after World War I drew to a close. Although Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in Europe and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in the United States, thematically the two novels are similar. For example, disillusionment is a prominent theme in them both.

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway becomes disenchanted with the American Dream because of how it defeated Jay Gatsby. By definition, Gatsby achieved the American Dream because he was born to an impoverished family but accumulated enough wealth to become one of the elite members of society; he “pulled himself up by the bootstraps”. He fulfilled the requirements of the American Dream in an effort to woo Daisy, a member of the “old money” class of East Egg. Daisy represents the emptiness of the American Dream in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Gatsby idealizes Daisy to the point that she will never be able to live up to his expectations, emphasizing the idea that the American Dream is too good to be true. Nick, as the narrator, sees how the hollowness of the American Dream defeated Gatsby and as a result, becomes disillusioned with the 1920’s American values of greed and corruption.

In Mrs. Dalloway, the disillusionment with the bourgeois of Great Britain is seen through the characters including Peter Walsh and Septimus. Peter is very obviously critical of English society because he is still hurt from Clarissa’s refusal years before. Clarissa would not marry Peter because her father did not approve of him and she felt that she had to marry someone of her class or higher. Peter detests how even though Clarissa loved him, she valued her place in society more. Peter was disheartened by the bourgeois, evident in this quote from the novel.

“Lord, lord, the snobbery of the English! thought Peter Walsh, standing in the corner. How they loved dressing up in gold lace and doing homage!” (172)

Virginia Woolf’s disillusionment with Great Britain is also exemplified by the character of Septimus. Septimus is a World War I veteran but was abandoned by the very society he fought to defend as a consequence of his shell shock, or PTSD. Shell shock was poorly understood at the time and the most common “cure” was isolation in the countryside; instead of being respected as veterans, shell shock victims were ostracized by the rest of society. They were seen as feminine and cowardly, as seen in this quote from Dr. Holmes about Septimus.

“So you’re in a funk,” he said agreeably, sitting down by his patient’s side. He had actually talked of killing himself to his wife, quite a girl, a foreigner, wasn’t she? Didn’t that give her a very odd idea of English husbands? Didn’t one owe perhaps a duty to one’s wife? Wouldn’t it be better to do something instead of lying in bed? For he had forty years’ experience behind him; and Septimus could take Dr. Holmes’s word for it – there was nothing whatever the matter with him” (92).

Virginia Woolf uses the character of Septimus to show her discontent with a society who values masculinity and wealth over mental health.

The Great Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway both feature disillusionment as a theme and then an acceptance of it. At the end of The Great Gatsby, in possibly the most famous quotes from the novel, Nick Carraway’s words register respectful melancholy of the American Dream which defeated Gatsby.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And then one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (180)

In a similar way Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa hears of Septimus’ death at her party from Dr. Holmes and uses it to rally her spirits and return to her party; accepting her life for what it is.

“He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble” (186).

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2 thoughts on “Mrs. Dalloway and The Great Gatsby: Different Countries but Similar Discontents

  1. I think the connection between The Great Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway’s themes of disillusionment is very interesting to look at and analyze. In The Great Gatsby, the American Dream is not everything Nick Carraway thought it would be. It does not live up to the expectations he has, that achieving this dream will immensely improve one’s life and their overall happiness. Instead, it does the opposite for Gatsby, destroying him. He is disillusioned because of his false perceptions. Similarly, in Mrs. Dalloway, characters such as Peter Walsh and Septimus Smith are disillusioned by the behavior of the British upper class. The bourgeois do not treat them with the kind of respect and moral goodness that they expect to receive from their fellow citizens. I thought your point about the treatment of Septimus by society was particularly interesting. He is a veteran who has risked his life fighting for the country of Britain, yet when he is in need of them, they turn their backs and don’t really try to help him. I think this is seen a lot among all people. We tend to praise those who will help us, but when the time comes to return the favor we have a much harder time helping someone else. It also speaks to the fact that we value strength and masculinity, and look down upon any kind of weakness in our society. Humans have such a negative connotation with weakness, when in reality being in need of help is nothing to be ashamed of.

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    1. I found your insight on how the value placed on strength and dominance by society is echoed in how the English bourgeoisie treated Septimus thought-provoking. Although Virginia Woolf is considered one of the first feminist writers, her literature such as Mrs.Dalloway also offer a critique on the concept of colonialism. The parallels between colonialism and the subjugation of women are not as different as I first though them to be though. In class, we discussed how colonists justified colonialism in the context of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and it essentially came down to the emphasis placed on strength and dominance. The colonists believe that they have a duty to colonize other lands due to their superior ideologies and technologies. As “civilized” peoples, the colonists see themselves as above the “savages” they assert dominance over. The English were some of the first people to colonize foreign lands and impose their belief systems onto other peoples, disregarding the complex societal structures they tore down. Septimus was the victim of a similar fate. He was disregarded as weak and powerless like the native peoples of colonized lands were by the colonists; and it led to his demise. Many women, especially prior to the 20th century, were also challenged by people (men) who believed themselves to be superior. Maybe it is time to question the extent to which society values strength, seeing as how it has caused many problems in the past.

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