Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen present a wide range of distinct characters in their respective works, Mrs. Dalloway and Sense and Sensibility, elucidating the nature of individuality within human connectedness. While an individual character on the surface is just that, commitment to another and to the Other, are bound to alter the sense of being held by both parties. Through this balance of individual and union, Woolf and Austen weave their characters into relational enigmas that offset and further develop the mentalities of all depicted.
In Sense and Sensibility, the individuality of Marianne Dashwood is drastically altered by her vexed relationship with John Willoughby. In the 1811 novel, Marianne is initially portrayed as an emotional, creative, naïve girl of 16 in pre-Victorian Britain. She finds deep meaning in literature, art, and music as she’s contrasted against her elder sister Elinor, who follows a more pragmatic path. The identity of Marianne constructed by Austen is one of an amateur aesthete that blithely falls in love with a charming yet flippant man that in turn amplifies Marianne’s emotional response to the situations she encounters. Her commitment to Willoughby, as he comes to be known, heightens her emotional senses during the relationship by attaching inspired feelings of love and dedication that Marianne interprets through creative forms of evocation. The bond shared between the two characters propels Marianne to almost manic episodes of excitement and whimsy that she channels into artistic expression. When Willoughby leaves Barton Cottage for London, Austen renders Marianne as a character lost in sadness that only knows emotional expression as a coping mechanism:
She played over every favourite song that she had been used to play to Willoughby, every air in which their voices had been oftenest joined, and sat the instrument gazing on every line of music that he had written out for her, till her heart was so heavy that no farther sadness could be gained; and this nourishment of grief was every day applied. She spent whole hours at the piano-forte alternately singing and crying; her voice often totally suspended by her tears.
I mean never to be later in rising than six, and from that time till dinner I shall divide every moment between music and reading. I have formed my plan, and am determined to enter on a course of serious study… I shall gain in the course of a twelvemonth a great deal of instruction which I now feel myself to want.
In Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, the role of Lucrezia Smith is to support her mentally damaged husband, Septimus Warren Smith, a British veteran of World War I. Lucrezia or just the diminutive Rezia, personifies the sense of selfless duty required in the caring of another. Her identity, in the course of the day the novel takes place, is so tied to Septimus and his struggle, that the two characters in effect assimilate into one entity. Rezia has relinquished and pared down aspects of her character to dedicate herself to the recovery of Septimus, and hence the assurance of their continued marriage. However, while still honoring this commitment despite his sometimes inward struggle turned outward, she becomes conflicted with feelings of doubt that question the essence of the situation. While in London’s Regent’s Park, Woolf portrays Rezia fighting her feelings of apprehension toward her husband:
It’s wicked; why should I suffer? She was asking, as she walked down the broad path. No; I can’t stand it any longer, she was saying, having left Septimus, who wasn’t Septimus any longer, to say hard, cruel, wicked things, to talk to himself, to talk to a dead man, on the seat over there…A child playing in the park accidently runs into Rezia which she finds momentarily comforting, but her thoughts described in the narration further her self-questioning:
But for herself she had done nothing wrong; she had loved Septimus; she had been happy; she had had a beautiful home, and there her sisters lived still, making hats. Why should she suffer?In these passages, Lucrezia’s individuality is compromised by her commitment to what she feels is the greater good of the relationship she shares with her husband. Rezia is shown as a fiercely loyal woman, however conflicted, always surrenders her individual sovereignty to the dual cause of marriage and Septimus’ deteriorated mental condition. Rezia’s conflict emerges with knowledge that’s made implicit to the reader, in that Septimus had been a different man before the war. This knowledge illustrates her struggle to maintain a relationship that has transformed into a different commitment, marked by the suffering of each individual. Lucrezia and Septimus have both lost elements of their individuality that have consequently diminished the strength of their commitment to one another.
Finally at their residence where Septimus is to receive in-home psychiatric treatment, Rezia comforts him and contemplates:
And she said, nothing should separate them. She sat down beside him and called him by the name of that hawk or crow which being malicious and a great destroyer of crops was precisely like him. No one could separate them, she said.However reassured Rezia has become in this moment, ultimately Septimus betrays the commitment by jumping out a window and killing himself. It is Septimus that separates them with his suicide, leaveing Rezia figuratively dead too. She is left unmoored and disoriented to the point that she begins to experience a trauma similar to the condition she was trying to ameliorate:
She put on her hat, and ran through cornfields – where could it have been? – On to some hill, somewhere near the sea, for there were ships, gulls, butterflies, they sat on a cliff. In London too, there they sat, and, half dreaming, came to her through the bedroom door, rain falling, whisperings, stirrings among dry corn, the caress of the sea, as it seemed to her, hollowing them in its arched shell and murmuring to her laid on shore, strewn she felt, like flying flowers over some tomb.Both Lucrezia and Septimus have sacrificed their individuality; she in her bond to him, and he to death. Rezia turns and then speaks to a woman watching her:
’He is dead’These scenarios crafted by Austen and Woolf show the balance that’s often present but unnoticed when individuals define their identities. In modernity, many sentient qualities are considered to be inborn and deterministic, yet through these literary works that notion is confronted by posing a question to the reader; “Am I the individual I think I am?” The question directs the reader to consider the balance of others within a dynamic environment as affecting individuality. Lucrezia comes to balance off Septimus in a way that defines her character, but is altogether destroyed when he takes his life. The reader is meant to feel a devastation of character left unresolved to further illustrate the death of an identity that had been tied to another. Marianne balances against Willoughby to define her happiness, though once the equation is altered, she learns to shift that balance toward herself and the family around her. In both cases, commitment alters the identities of perceived individuality.
The ideas of individuality within human connections represented in Sense and Sensibility and Mrs. Dalloway are divergent. Yet the polarizing examples of identity in Marianne and Lucrezia’s commitments inform the reader how far individual motivations will reach to achieve a sense of belonging with others. The confluence of these two characters in Austen and Woolf’s works, reveal the permeability and ever-changing nature of concepts assumed to be static. What’s experienced by the reader is a general conception of self that’s not as independent and self-determining as often thought, but one more informed by a mixture of personal uniqueness influenced by surrounding personalities. Individuality exists on a periphery of ever-changing influences while orbiting a core of mostly fixed traits. The reader of these works, and generally all literary fiction, experience the author’s characterizations intermingled with their own interpretations to understand individuality as a constantly evolving set of characteristics. And so a piece of the human condition is somewhat glimpsed at when individuality is seen through the window of commitment, connection, and choices characters make in fiction and life.
Painting: Lane Near a Small Town, by Alfred Sisley