Dead Men, Walking: Actors, Networks, and Actualized Metaphors in Mrs. Dalloway and Raymond
Midway through Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked veteran of World War I, famously sees his dead comrade Evans return from the grave. As readers and critics, we know just what to do here. We dash in as theoretical medics, ready to diagnose a wide range of underlying problems that might explain his vision. Approaching the scene from a psychoanalytic or human psyche angle, we can detect post-traumatic stress, point out the unresolved grief that lies beneath his hallucination, or note the repressed homoerotic desire that appears in the form of Evans. If we arrive from the somewhat more fashionable school of historical context, we might observe how Septimus represents a larger group of traumatized veterans, or we could see Evans as symbolizing a transnational expression of the violence wielded by imperialism. And many other approaches are available to us: it is a rich time for literary criticism. But what we are least likely to do, faced with Septimus’s vision, is to believe it—to entertain the idea that, yes, he does see his dead friend Evans rise from the dead—and to consider what that might mean. Our reaction—for good and productive reasons—is usually to move to unveiling, to a vertical model in which we read the vision on top as Woolf’s metaphor for something else that lies beneath. Indeed, part of our job as critics is to interpret the vision as a sign of other things.