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Death is a timeless theme throughout literature. It is a cruel fact of life, the unfortunate fate that everyone must meet. Death is the only absolute, the ultimate separation. In literature, death can have a powerful impact on the soul, evoking a strong emotional response in the reader. It can encourage the reader to dismiss their fears and urge them to slowly come to terms with their mortality. It can also instill dread and anxiety. In both Virginia Woolf’s Mrs.
Dalloway and Zadie Smith’s NW, this fear of death and its consequences comes up repeatedly. Both novels are concerned with characters whose lives are significantly marked by death; the people of London experience the war, Clarissa Dalloway experiences the loss of Septimus Smith, and both Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake simultaneously experience the loss of Felix Cooper.
In every instance, the characters are left to contemplate their own lives, reflecting on the deaths that have affected them. In both Mrs.
Dalloway and NW, the characters who die portray the inverse of the characters that their deaths impact. The dead offer a representation of how their lives could have been. These ghosts haunt the lives of the characters who are living, reminding them of a destiny that they could share if life had played out differently. In both novels, the characters are deeply changed by the deaths of other people. In both books, death can be seen as a way to communicate, to alter the characters’ lives, both for good and for bad.
The fear of war in Mrs. Dalloway causes panic throughout London. Set just after World War I, the novel takes place during a very trying time for many people. There is a great sense of loss, as people mourn the deaths of those who fought in the war. So many people have died, and everyone has been affected by this tremendous loss, in one way or another.
Although the war has ended, the impact is still being felt and serves as a reminder of what has happened. People admitted that “[t]he War was over, except for some one like Mrs Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven – over” (Woolf 5). The war still causes emotional turmoil for the people of London, as it has left behind a sense of confusion and unknowingness. The effects are more drastic for some people, such as Septimus Smith, a veteran of World War I who has lost his friend in battle. He suffers from PTSD, and upon hearing a motor car alarm go off, he felt “as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames,” and it “terrified him” (Woolf 15).
His everyday life is as frightening as if he were still fighting in the war, and he lives every day on the verge of a nervous collapse. He is unable to find relief, and will eventually take his own life. Although the war is over, the people of London are still haunted by its aftermath. The remembrance of death has caused extreme fear for many people, and has caused lives to spiral out of control. In the same novel, however, this death is seen to be a positive force. In Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Smith needs to die in order for Clarissa Dalloway to live. Throughout the novel, Clarissa Dalloway struggles to balance her internal and external worlds. On the surface, she is only concerned with frivolous parties and social gatherings and it is not until during her party that she starts to look for a deeper meaning in her life. In the beginning of the novel, as she wanders the streets of London, “she had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (Woolf 8).
While she is able to see the beauty and value in things, she still harbors this fear of death and isolation within herself. Mrs. Dalloway is very concerned with her appearance and the opinions people have of her and tends to keep her feelings inside rather than expose them to others. Her profound introspection contributes to her deep emotions and the internal struggles she has. For example, during her party, Mrs. Dalloway attempts to make peace with her past and present. She is reminded of her past when she reencounters Peter Walsh, whom she almost married. He makes her question her decision to reject him to marry Richard for financial security and a comfortable life in the upper class. She is concerned with death and aging and worries that she has chosen the wrong option and thus wasted her life. She feels the oppressive forces of life weighing her down and cannot come to terms with the life she has until she sees it taken from someone else.
When she hears of Septimus’ death, she finally feels less alone and is able to appreciate the life she has. She feels a connection with Septimus, as he too had trouble communicating his feelings, and she realizes why he needed to commit suicide. She remarks that “[d]eath was defiance” and that “[t]here was an embrace in death” (Woolf 184). Mrs. Dalloway needed to hear of his death to be able to appreciate her life. She learned that she didn’t need to devalue her own life as well, and she needed to realize this through Septimus. In NW, the death of Felix Cooper is able to connect Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake, whose vastly different lives have been drifting apart throughout the entire novel. Felix’s section in NW is seemingly unrelated to the rest of the book, and he appears to have no connection to the other characters. While Leah and Natalie have never meet Felix, his death will have a great impact on both of their lives. The two girls come from very different backgrounds, but were brought together in childhood by a fateful incident.
As they grow up, they begin to take separate paths, and their lives start to lack similarity. This diversion is noticed after a problem arises, after which “followed a break between Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake,” and “[t]his period lasted a year and a half” (Smith 224). This break allows for the first separation between the girls, from which it would prove very difficult for them to recover. Leah will grow up to live a simple life with her dog and husband Michel. She is still in a sense naïve and lets Shar trick her into handing over money. She loves her husband but doesn’t share in his desire to have children and secretly takes contraceptive pills. Leah is caught in the present and wants to keep her lust filled life with Michel instead of moving forward and starting a family. She resents her old friend Natalie, who has become one of the most successful people from Caldwell. Leah and Natalie reunite when Leah and her husband Michel are struggling in their relationship. Michel begs for Natalie to help him communicate with his wife, who is not speaking to him. After the old friends begin talking, Leah reveals that she is thinking about the death of Felix, which she heard on the radio, remarking, “[w]hy that poor bastard on Albert Road. It doesn’t make sense to me” (Smith 400).
Natalie answers, “[b]ecause we worked harder” (Smith 400). Leah is haunted by the death of Felix because she knows that it could easily have been her. This unfortunate destiny was only fulfilled by him but he could have shared it with her as well. Leah is finally able to come to terms with her own life and accept her differences with her friend Natalie. In another fateful incident, the two characters are both grounded and brought back together. Natalie realizes that she has friends, family, a job, and a home, and that she has to be at peace with the life she has. In order to have this realization, she needed to hear of the death of Felix Cooper, although she has never and will never meet him. Natalie Blake has a similar experience in NW due to the death of Felix Cooper, as she too learns to accept her own life for what it is. Felix’s death destroys the reverse images of each other that Leah and Natalie represent.
Throughout the novel, it is clear that Natalie has drifted away from her old friend Leah. Natalie has had tremendous personal success—a reason for which Leah resents her. She married rich, has a well-paying job, and lives in a beautiful Victorian house with her family. She hardly ever spends time with Leah and her husband but when she does it is uncomfortable for everyone. When Leah reminds her of her old name Keisha, “Natalie chews at a nail, hating to be teased” (Smith). She wants nothing to do with her old life, a reason for changing her own name, and sets her sights on moving forward. She is a stark contrast to Leah, who doesn’t seem to want to grow up. Natalie loves to work, and dedicates all her time to doing so. When she has children, she embraces the additional work they require. On the surface, she appears to have a perfect life but on the inside, she feels empty. She begins sleeping with people she messages on the internet and her marriage starts to fall apart. One night she leaves her house and wanders the streets of London with Nathan Bogle, an old friend from school. During this walk, she contemplates taking her own life. She almost jumps off of a bridge, and she can picture herself doing it, but “[t]he act remained just that: an act, a prospect, always possible” (Smith 385). Natalie needed to look death in the face, to see the alternative to life, in order to not kill herself. When she meets Leah again at the end of the novel, she reconnects with her over the death of Felix Cooper. When Leah asks why he had to die and not her, Natalie says, “[w]e wanted to get out. People like Bogle—they didn’t want it enough” (Smith 400).
She has realized who she really is and sounds bold and empowering when speaking to her friend Leah. The two characters are shown to be not as distant from each other as they have appeared to be throughout the novel. They both understand and accept their places and they would not have had these realizations without contemplating the alternative: death. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Zadie Smith’s NW are both novels concerned with the fear of death and its consequences. Death is a very emotionally stimulating phenomenon, and can have both positive and negative implications. These novels see both the good and bad effects a fear of death can have through its impact on the characters. They show characters who needed to learn to understand their lives, and who did so by experiencing death. In these books, death acts as a ghost, haunting the characters with the alternative to their current situations, and in turn, helps them come to terms with their lives. It can scare people into making both the right and wrong decisions. Death is ultimately a connection between these two books, from different eras, showing the timelessness of a fear that is hidden within all of us.
Both Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and NW by Zadie Smith are novels concerned with the effects of death on the living. It is my belief that this is what links these two great works of literature. Death is an inevitable fate for every person, and our fear of it is the only thing that connects us all. I have come to understand the power of this fear as a literary element, both for good and for bad. I hope that others will also realize the capabilities of our fears, and how profound it is, the extent to which the fear of death can impact our lives.
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