Clarissa Dalloway’s sexuality, in the fictional novel Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, is ambiguous. Clarissa kisses her female friend Sally Seton, and describes it as “the most exquisite moment of her whole life” (Woolf 1925:33). This event in the novel causes intrigue for postmodernist queer theorists, who analyse the possibilities of an abrosexual or bisexual Clarissa in a heteronormative world. One particular postmodernist writer, named Michael Cunningham, decided to write a novel which creatively explores the themes of gender and sexuality, which are hinted at, or rather suppressed, in Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham’s book, The Hours, boldly plots of lives of a few queer characters, whose sexual orientations shift, blend, and change with time. In a similar fashion to Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours incorporates ambiguous kisses into the storyline, which brings to light the notion that gender and sexuality are fluid (non-fixed). In this essay, I will analyse the motif behind the ambiguous kisses in Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours, to track the function of the kisses in both novels. The kisses will be placed in their socio-historic contexts to provide deeper insight into the intended meaning of the kisses. I will begin by explaining Mrs. Dalloway, followed by The Hours.
Clarissa is in a heterosexual marriage with Richard Dalloway in a heteronormative world. Their relationship lacks intimacy – Clarissa and Richard do not share a bed, and they spend a lot of time apart. However, Clarissa is content with her role as a housewife who hosts parties and takes care of other household duties, such as sewing (Woolf 1925:40) and shopping (Woolf 1925:2). On the surface, Clarissa and Richard’s marriage seems to be picture perfect, to those looking in from the outside. However, Clarissa’s past actions and current thoughts reveal something different, which creates a question about duality within this character.
The duality which I speak of, refers to Clarissa’s ambiguous sexuality. As a young woman, Clarissa kisses her female friend Sally Seton, who is a feminist, and describes their love as being protective, unlike a relationship with a man:
The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feelings for a man. It was completely disinterested, and besides, it had a quality which could only exist between women, between women just grown up. It was protective, on her side; sprang from a sense of being in league together, a presentiment of something that was bound to part them (they spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe), which led to this chivalry, this protective feeling which was much more on her side than Sally’s (Woolf 1925:32-33).
Sally is outspoken and smokes cigars; she engages in topics about politics, which was considered conversation for men only at the time. Clarissa is almost certain that she is in love with Sally (Woolf 1925:30). However, Clarissa also describes being in love with her male friend, Peter Walsh. Eventually, Clarissa chooses to marry a heterosexual man, named Richard Dalloway. To understand these ambiguities surrounding Clarissa’s sexuality, one must unpack her actions by delving into her mind, and into the societal expectations around her during this modernist period. I will take the stance that Clarissa Dalloway remains bisexual despite her heterosexual marriage to Richard.
During the modernist era (early 20th century), the women’s suffrage movement began and the number of women in the workforce increased. Cubism began as a philosophical thought, where multiple perspectives were considered instead of a single narrative (Poplawski 2012:479-496). This allowed writers like Virginia Woolf to create literature which explored the fluidity of gender and sexuality. However, society was still largely conservative, and heteronormativity was still the societal norm. Gender roles were still in place, and openly speaking about LGBTQI+ was still taboo. Men were expected to work, and to be the family’s protector and provider; women were expected to take care of the household and children. However, as some parts of society began to open their minds, this made room for novels like Mrs. Dalloway to be published. Mrs. Dalloway included themes of feminism and queerism in a heteronormative society. However the content about gender and sexuality was limited. According to Zoe Henry (2021:31-33), Virginia Woolf’s publishes presumably asked her to edit the parts of Mrs. Dalloway which explicitly tried to normalise queer lifestyles.
Some readers chose to ignore the parts of the books which alluded to Clarissa’s bisexuality (Wood 2018:2). Olivia Wood writes about the erasure of bisexual women: She claims that bisexual women are not identified or given space in society; they are either considered heterosexual or homosexual. She believes that a character like Clarissa Dalloway is boxed into either being heterosexual or homosexual by literary scholars. Wood (2018:1) opens up the dialogue about Clarissa being bisexual. I am in agreement with Wood on this point. Wood would like for society to accept feminine bisexuality as a norm, rather than ‘other’ it as a type, or base it on one’s gender identity (Wood 2018:2). As an example of a scholar who does not outrightly call Clarissa bisexual, is Zoe Henry, who speculates that Clarissa may be queer, without specifying her sexual orientation.
Zoe Henry calls for the reader to ponder beyond the text. She believes, “It is the reader’s responsibility to read beyond the ending of the story” (Henry 2021:33). Henry also speculates that Warren Septimus Smith is gay, and that his attachment to Evans’ memory is based on romantic love (Henry 2021:32). In this regard, I differ from Henry’s viewpoint. I understand Septimus’ preoccupation with Evans to be a symptom of his Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. Flashbacks and hallucinations are related to shell-shock. Septimus’ visions of Evans do not include elements of eroticism, but rather images of war and harm. I do however agree with Henry that readers should apply critical thinking to character analysis to come up with their own understanding of characters. Mary Joe Hughes is of a similar view: she believes that the reader and writer should come together to create art (Hughes 2004:360). Kate Haffey (2010) is one such academic, who decides to explore Clarissa’s sexuality in a deeper way, by adding her viewpoint to the author’s work.
Kate Haffey (2010:139) is of the view that Clarissa and Sally’s kiss is more meaningful, than a mere, irrelevant and inconsequential stage in female adolescent development where one progresses from girlhood to womanhood. Haffey places Clarissa and Sally’s kiss within its own moment, to be set apart and taken seriously. In this moment, a different view of Clarissa presents itself; a view of Clarissa which would not be known to the public, but one which lives with Clarissa internally in timeless memory. To me, this indicates Clarissa’s bisexuality, because she does not regret her kiss with Sally, or her love for Peter. Instead, Clarissa honours her past by fondly recalling its memories thirty years later. Clarissa is happy with her decision to marry Richard. She confirms that she made the right decision to turn down Peter’s proposal (Woolf 1925:113). These thoughts of Clarissa’s confirm that she is comfortable with her bisexuality.
Michael Cunningham, had more freedom than Virginia Woolf, to normalise queer lifestyles in his literature. The Hours was published in 1997, which falls under the postmodernist era. From 1939 onwards, gay rights and women’s rights began to increase as modernism progressed. The feminist movement was in motion. Cunningham was thus able to write a book in which his characters’ queer lifestyles are openly spoken about. Cunningham was able to expand on Woolf’s work, by making gender and sexuality the main themes of his novel. Whilst Woolf kept sexuality, gender, and feminism on the fringes of her novel, Cunningham centralized it.
In The Hours, Clarissa is openly a lesbian who is married to her female partner, Sally. The dynamics of their marital relationship does not differ from that of a heterosexual couple. Though, Clarissa has, in the past, kissed a man named Richard. According to Florica Bodistean (2016:88), Cunningham has subverted the genders around the kiss which Woolf had written about in Mrs. Dalloway. In doing so, Cunningham has made it clear that gender and sexuality are separate and independent of each other. Sexual attraction between people does not depend upon gender preferences but instead is based upon the desire for the person itself. Clarissa’s kiss with Richard, emphasizes the question about abrosexuality and bisexuality, which were also relevant to Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham pushes the boundary further by including a homosexual kiss between Laura Brown and her female neighbour, Kitty.
Laura Brown is a housewife who is dissatisfied with her life of domesticity, to the point of being suicidal about it. Her depression causes her to abandon her family, so that she can live freely, away from the heteronormative expectations of her society. Her son is a homosexual writer who is suffering from HIV/AIDS. By making Richard HIV positive, Cunningham brings attention to the disease which was discriminately associated with gay men during the 1990’s. Both Laura and Kitty are married women living in suburbia with their husbands. Their sexuality is concealed much like Clarissa Dalloway’s in Woolf’s novel. This demonstrates that, while Clarissa, Sally, and Richard are open about their sexuality in public, there still remain some who hide their true identity.
In another attempt to normalise unconventional lifestyles, Cunningham writes about a kiss between Virginia and her sister, Vanessa. This kiss implies incest, which in this case is also tied up with questions about sexuality and gender. According to Haffey (2010:158), this kiss serves the same function as the kiss between Clarissa and Sally in Mrs. Dalloway. What Haffey means by this, is that the incestuous kiss causes readers to question unconventional types of affection, which are forbidden and judged by society.
In both novels, time is a recurring theme. In fact, the original name of Mrs. Dalloway, was The Hours, but Woolf’s publishers had her change this name, possibly to take away attention from the notion of queer temporality. Cunningham honoured Woolf by naming his book, The Hours, and by bringing attention to multiple queer moments in his novel. Queer temporality indicates that time is not linear for queer people.. A queer person can shift from one sexual orientation to another, and then back again. Time and fluidity go hand in hand, as nothing is fixed. Everything is constantly changing, and so is one’s identity as life progresses and experiences occur. Clarissa’s queer moments are described in her inner dialogue with herself. She rationalises her attraction to women:
… yet she [Clarissa] could not resist sometimes yielding to the charm of a woman, not a girl, of a woman confessing, as to her they often did, some scrape, some folly. And whether it was pity, or their beauty, or that she was older, or some accident—like a faint scent, or a violin next door (so strange is the power of sounds at certain moments), she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough (Woolf 1925:29-30).
In this passage, Clarissa admits to herself that there are moments in her heterosexual marriage when she is attracted to women.
By comparing the two novels, and placing them side by side, readers can see the progress in society regarding acceptance of LGBTQI+ people. While Woolf gave readers a small taste of queer lifestyle and feminism, Cunningham exposed readers to multiple perspectives of queer lifestyles. Readers can determine that the sociological landscape changed dramatically between the publication of the two novels. The genre of queer literature has grown; it is being read widely now and opens up dialogue around previously taboo subjects. Queer literature is creating awareness about alternate lifestyles and normalising non-traditional relationships. Stigmas, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination reduce as readers are educated. Bringing LGBTQI+ literature into bookstores, libraries, schools, and universities aids in achieving Woolf and Cunningham’s motive to offer different perspectives on sexualities and genders. It can thus be concluded that all the kisses in both novels serve the same purpose, which is to open the reader’s mind to different perspectives on sexualities and genders, and to normalise queer lifestyles.
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